The Basics: Visiting the Disney World Theme Parks and FastPass+
By Dave Shute
- Picking when to go
- Dividing your time among the parks
- Picking the best days to visit each park, and
- Designing what you do each day, using especially Disney’s new FastPass+ program, to minimize time spent waiting in line.
Disney’s FastPass+ program, fully deployed in 2014, is particularly important. Because of FastPass+, more so than ever before there’s a huge payoff to planning ahead for your Disney World trip–and a huge penalty to not doing so.
AN INTRODUCTION TO WALT DISNEY WORLD AND ITS FOUR THEME PARKS
Walt Disney World occupies about 40 square miles southwest of Orlando Florida, making it just a little smaller than San Francisco and almost twice the size of the land area of Manhattan.
It contains hotels, shopping, waterparks, a campground, and most significantly, four theme parks: Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and the Magic Kingdom.
The Magic Kingdom is the quintessential Disney theme park and the heart of Walt Disney World.
Inspired by the original Disneyland, it presents iconic attractions ranging from Space Mountain to the Haunted Mansion. Loved by the young and old, it is particularly suited to younger guests.
For those tall and mature enough to enjoy everything in the park, all its best can be seen in two long days or three more comfortable ones—shorter days will suit the youngest visitors. Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland recently completed a major expansion.
Think of Epcot as being two parks combined into one: Future World explores ideas, technology, and the planet Earth; World Showcase suggests a permanent World’s Fair.
The favorite Disney park of many adults, new and newly-reimagined attractions that opened later in 2016—Soarin’, Frozen Ever After, and a Frozen Meet and Greet—have increased its attractiveness to the youngest (always Epcot’s weakest feature) while disappointing those who insist that Arendelle is not a real country. (Hint: what Disney calls “France” isn’t real either…)
Epcot repays attention and exploration, and for those old enough to get it, takes more than a day to appreciate. The youngest visitors may wish to skip it, or devote half a day to it.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios celebrates movies, music, TV and other popular entertainments via rides and shows.
Undergoing a major expansion that in years to come will lead to new Star Wars and Toy Story themed lands, it has recently seen several attractions close preparatory to these expansions, causing much fussing.
A dozen great rides and shows remain, and it continues to be a park that takes about a day to see. Many of its best rides are thrill rides, so the youngest visitors will have only half a day’s worth of appropriate things to do.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom combines the all-ages appeal of the Magic Kingdom with the repayment to intellectual curiosity of Epcot.
Its rides and shows appeal to almost everyone, but the park best showcases itself to those who also bring an interest in animals—real, imagined, and/or blue.
Traditionally an easy day, Animal Kingdom visits lengthened with the opening a of evening offerings in 2016. Moreover, sometime in 2017 the stunning visuals (and hopefully not the insipid plot) of James Cameron’s Avatar will be featured in a major expansion, making the Animal Kingdom then an easy two day park and a hard one day park.
Right now, only a few of its attractions are inappropriate for the youngest, so target it for half a day with the littlest ones.
Those first timers who are able to return for another trip later may come on their first visit with younger kids for just a few days at Magic Kingdom, returning later to both see more of that park and see the other three parks as the kids grow and develop.
First time visitors tall and mature enough to see everything on a once in a lifetime trip should budget six full days in the parks—two plus at the Magic Kingdom, two minus at Epcot, and a day each at Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom.
These park days ideally should be spread across a nine day trip (including travel time) to provide breaks from the parks—and to multiply the opportunity to book FastPass+, the most important tool you have for reducing waits.
THE BASICS OF FASTPASS+
To use FastPass+, you need a My Disney Experience account and valid park tickets linked within it.
Then, beginning 60 days before check-in if you are staying at a Disney-owned resort or the Swan or Dolphin, or 30 days before use if you are staying anywhere else, you can book one hour windows for up to three rides with minimal waits in one park. (Three different rides—no repeats.)
At two parks—the Magic Kingdom and the Animal Kingdom—you can pick your three from any of the FastPass+ rides offered.
At Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios you pick one ride from a short “Tier One” list and the second and third from a longer “Tier Two” list.
Many rides that offer FastPass+ are unwise to choose, and the tiering at Epcot and Hollywood Studios makes it hard to see everything in one day without arriving before park open.
In effect you have a reservation for the rides you book via FastPass+, and choosing your FastPass+ well is the single most important component of having an easier, lower wait visit. Make good FastPass+ choices and you will save hours of waiting in lines. Make poor ones, or don’t book them at all, or wait too long and book them too close to your trip, and you’ll wait hours more than you needed to.
Honestly, the easiest way for first-timers to do this is to follow the suggested itineraries that already exist on this site or the more comprehensive ones in the book that I co-author with Josh Humphrey, writer of easyWDW.com, The easy Guide to Your Walt Disney World Visit—the only major Disney World guide book written from scratch for using FastPass+.
But even if you follow one of my itineraries or one from the book, you may need to fine tune it to the situation of your own family or group. Moreover, returning visitors may want to have a more sharply-defined trip than the “see almost everything” of the pre-designed itineraries.
Here’s some things to think about:
Are you willing to get up early in the morning and be at the parks 45 minutes before they open?
If so, FastPass+ becomes a little simpler for you. By arriving that early, you’ll be able to get on at least one or two attractions without much wait—at Magic Kingdom, two to four attractions—that you would otherwise need to spend FastPass+ on to avoid long waits.
Are there some attraction classes that you know you are going to skip?
One way to think about the attractions is to class them into character meets, thrill rides, and everything else.
If you are avoiding thrill rides, then you’ll have a much easier time picking your FastPass+, because many of the most popular rides that build the biggest lines most quickly won’t even be on your to-do list.
And if your group is all old enough to not have to meet Ariel, or Elsa, or Mickey, that’ll take some other potential options off your list. (Another way to save time in meeting characters is to meet them at meals—that’s the approach my itineraries take.)
People like my dad and sister who avoid thrill rides and avoid character meets have the simplest set of choices.
Are you willing to bet on more FastPass+ being available for key attractions?
Once you’ve used the first three FastPass+ that you pre-booked, you can then add, one at a time, fourth and more FastPass+, but only subject to availability.
However, the rides you might most want to book as your 4th and later FastPass+ may be the same ones everyone else wants to book, and thus may not be available. So you should always try for more FastPass+, but not assume they will be available.
Another thing to think about is how many days you have for each park. Each additional day gives you three more FastPass+, and one more opportunity to arrive early.
Under current ticket prices, each additional ticket day—after you’ve already bought four—is about $16/person/day for days 5-7, and $11/person/day for days 8-10
That means for another less than six bucks each, you each get to book at least three more great rides with low waits! See one of my itineraries for an example of how multiple partial days can work well.
The best FastPass+ for you.
The best FastPass+ for your group will thus vary by what you want to see and what you are sure you want to avoid, whether or not you can arrive in the parks well before they open, whether you are willing to bet on more FastPass+ being available that day, and how many days (and thus FastPass+) you have for each park.
FASTPASS+ PRIORITIES AT THE MAGIC KINGDOM
So to take the Magic Kingdom as an example, you will save the most time by targeting the following attractions (in alphabetical order, based on the prioritized lists in our book) for FastPass+
- Ariel’s Grotto
- Big Thunder Mountain
- Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin
- Enchanted Tales with Belle
- Haunted Mansion
- Jungle Cruise
- Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
- Peter Pan’s Flight
- Pirates of the Caribbean
- Princess Fairytale Hall Meet Cinderella
- Princess Fairytale Hall Meet Rapunzel
- Seven Dwarfs Mine Train
- Space Mountain
- Splash Mountain
- Town Square Meet Mickey
Note that four of these (Ariel’s Grotto, Fairytale Hall Cinderella, Fairytale Hall Rapunzel, and Town Square Mickey) are character meet and greets, and four (Big Thunder Mountain, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Space Mountain and Splash Mountain) are thrill (or thrill-ish) rides. Some will not be interested in the first group, some not be interested in the second, and some not be interested in either group.
Moreover, most days of the year it’s pretty straightforward if you get to the tapstiles at least 45 minutes before the scheduled open to be able to knock off several of these priority rides first thing with low waits and no need for FastPass+. In Tomorrowland, you should be able to do Space Mountain, Buzz Lightyear, and a third ride in Fantasyland without much wait. In Frontierland, the same goes for Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain, and in Fantasyland you should be able to do four of the shorter-duration rides before long lines build.
So if you have three days at the Magic Kingdom, with two early mornings, you could ride all the rides in the list with low waits—nine via FastPass+ and the rest via early arrivals! And if because of the nature of your group you can eliminate either the thrill rides or the character meets, then you can see all the priority rides with two days at MK—two early mornings and the rest via FastPass+.
FASTPASS+ PRIORITIES AT DISNEY’S ANIMAL KINGDOM
At Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the following attractions (again in alphabetical order) are the key FastPass+ priorities:
- Adventurers Outpost Mickey and Minnie Meet
- Expedition Everest
- Kali River Rapids
- Kilimanjaro Safaris
- Primeval Whirl
The first is a character meet, and the rest except Kilimanjaro Safaris are thrill rides—although Kali River Rapids and Primeval Whirl are not that thrilling.
It’s almost always best to pre-book Kali as a later in the day FastPass+, as you will get soaked, and that will go better in the heat of the afternoon. On a one day trip you would arrive early and do two of DINOSAUR, Expedition Everest and Kilimanjaro Safaris at park open, FastPass+ the third, and pick either meeting Mickey or Primeval Whirl as your third pre-booked FastPass+.
A two day visit to Animal Kingdom is even simpler, letting you avoid early mornings entirely, pre-booking all six priority attractions as FastPass+.
FASTPASS+ PRIORITIES AT EPCOT
Epcot is a little more complicated.
One complexity Epcot shares with Disney’s Hollywood Studios is that at these two parks, FastPass+ is divided into two tiers, and you can only pre-book one attraction from Tier One and two from Tier Two.
The following are the Epcot attractions to consider spending FastPass+ on:
- Character Spot Meet
- Frozen Ever After (T1)
- Journey into Imagination
- Mission: Space
- Soarin’ (T1)
- Spaceship Earth
- Test Track (T1)
- Turtle Talk with Crush
Of these nine, one is a character meet and two—Mission Space and Test Track–are classed as thrill rides. Knowing you want to skip either or both of these types will simplify your choices.
But if you want to see all these attractions and meet and greets with low waits, then two days with one early morning will be your best bet. Pre-book as your Tier Ones Frozen Ever After and one of Test Track and Soarin’. See the other at park open.
FASTPASS+ PRIORITIES AT DISNEY’S HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS
As at Epcot, the presence of FastPass+ tiering complicates matters at the Studios.
The FastPass+ that will save you the most waiting time are for the following rides
- Great Movie Ride (T1)
- Frozen Sing Along
- Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster (T1)
- Star Tours
- Tower of Terror
- Toy Story Midway Mania (T1)
None of these are character meets, and three— Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, Star Tours, and Tower of Terror—are thrill rides.
Because of what’s in Tier One, it’s hard to do everything with low waits at the Studios in a single day’s visit. For a one day visit, most will want to pre-book as their Tier One Toy Story Midway Mania, and as their Tier Twos Tower of Terror and either Star Tours or the Frozen Sing-Along.
You’d be targeting Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster at park open, and fit the Great Movie Ride (which builds heavy waits mid-morning into the afternoon) in either right after or towards the end of the day.
A two-day visit to the Studios is much simpler, as you can pre-book another Tier One ride.
FOURTH (AND FURTHER) FASTPASS+
Once you’ve used your pre-booked FastPass+, you can book any available FastPass+ one at a time. Availability varies wildly, and FastPass+ for the most popular rides will often be gone by the time you have used your first three. Your chances are better the earlier in the day your first three are used, and the smaller your party. They are also better at the Magic Kingdom than anywhere else.