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Disney parks for grown-ups: an insider's guide

MSNBC's Bridget Klaka, a lifelong Disney aficionado, shares six tips on how to have a good time during a visit to a Disney theme park, even during the busy seasons.
Visitors ride the Expedition Everest roller coaster at the Animal Kingdom park at Walt Disney World.John Raoux / AP
/ Source: Special to

Because of my lifelong passion for Disney theme parks, I've become something of a counselor to friends and co-workers considering a visit to Disneyland or Walt Disney World. They'll stop by my office before a vacation to tell me their fears or ask for tips.

Believe it or not, the park is still just as magical to me today as it was when I was 9 and made my first visit. My husband and I have been to a Disney park five times in the five years, and will be celebrating our fifth wedding anniversary this year at Disney World. I’ve read my share of guidebooks, logged many hours on fan sites across the Internet and kept copious notes about my trips.

Why do I keep going back? I return because there are things I’ve yet to see and it’s still full of that magic that brings a smile to my face, just like the first time. The countdown to the next trip is always in progress.

Here are some of the questions I hear from friends, and what I tell them:

  • Is it just for kids? Certainly not, you don’t even need to be a kid at heart, but it helps. Anyone of any age can find things to enjoy, at Disneyland and Disney World. In addition to rides and character greetings, there are stage shows, night clubs, golfing, fishing, culinary activities and spa treatments.   
  • Can I do it in a day? Well, not exactly. Disneyland Resort consists of two theme parks and Walt Disney World has four (plus two water parks and various other attractions). Each of the six parks has various lands, or themed sections. If you want a quick sampling of what an individual park has to offer, it’s possible to do that in one day, but you’re not doing it justice. Depending on the time of year, both resorts can be seen in 3-5 days, but 5-7 is ideal.
  • Should I stay on-site or off-site? Staying off-site is more of an issue at Walt Disney World than it is at Disneyland, as off-site hotels are often as close as one city block from the latter park’s entrance. The neon jungle that grew up on South Harbor Boulevard around Disneyland so incensed Walt Disney that he bought a massive amount of land (47 square miles) in Central Florida to avoid that very thing.

    So, all of the parks and hotels at Walt Disney World require driving on Disney’s private roads. Parking fees run about $8 a day and the area isn’t accessible by public transportation. For Florida, I’m a fan of staying at an on-property resort hotel. You can use your own car or a rental, and there’s also a complimentary bus system that will ferry you from park to park, or resort to park, and back.

How to have a great time: 6 tips
Because my time at the Disney theme parks is so important to me, I want to make sure I have the best possible experience. Here are some tips:

1. See the "can’t miss" attractions: Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, Cirque du Soleil's "La Nouba," Yorkshire County Fish Shop and Ice Station Cool (free samples of Coca-Cola from around the world).

2. Plan, plan, plan: It’s a vacation, why spend all that time organizing? Well, if you don’t know where you’re headed or what you want to experience, you’ll be spending a bunch of money on the same crowd and confusion you could have gotten from going to your local bookstore the day the next Harry Potter book is released.

With the variety of things you can do and see at the resorts, you’ll want to have a general, flexible schedule for your vacation before you leave home. For example: “On Tuesday, begin with Magic Kingdom and head over to Epcot for dinner and fireworks.” Be sure to make time for breaks and relaxation; after all, this is a vacation.

Pick up one of the many guidebooks available, or borrow a guidebook from your local library. My favorite is the "Unofficial Guide" series, as you get an idea of crowd levels by date, individual ride-queue estimates and reviews of restaurants and both on- and off-property lodging. Also, spend some time surfing around some Disney fan sites like Intercot, WDWMagic or MousePlanet. You’ll find more attraction information and see tips from experienced theme parkers.

3. Take advantage of early entry: There’s a big benefit to staying on-property -- besides the free transportation -- and that’s "Extra Magic Hours." Most days, a different park opens either an hour earlier or stays open up to three hours later for resort guests.

While it’s a tough sell for some of our friends, my husband and I find the morning hours invaluable. If the select park opens to the public at 9 a.m., it opens to resort guests at 8 a.m. It’s early, but it’s fabulous because there are fewer people in the park. With little or no wait, you can get to most of the big rides before it’s time for lunch.

4. Get there early: You can arrive at the parks beginning about an hour before opening time, so head out early and get in line. You’ll be rewarded with short waits for at least the first two or three attractions you visit.

Here's a tip for the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World: For easiest access to Tomorrowland, hang a right immediately at the end of Main Street and take the shortcut through the Tomorrowland Terrace Noodle Station. Also, Fantasyland’s Dumbo has one of the slowest-moving lines on the planet. If this is a must-see, go there first, just like 80 percent of the other families with pre-schoolers.

5. Choose vacation dates carefully: I prefer the quieter seasons, which include early May, mid-September, and early December, but not everyone has flexible vacation times. No worries, because it’s still possible to have a full vacation during the busier times of year, such as Christmas, spring break (and Easter) and the Fourth of July. In fact, my husband and I were at Walt Disney World for Christmas two years ago and there’s nothing quite like watching fireworks in the Magic Kingdom on December 25.

6. Use FastPass judiciously: FastPasses are free, and the benefit is included with the price of admission. To get a FastPass, insert your park ticket into a selected attraction's FastPass machine and then collect it and your FastPass. There will be a time range printed on the FastPass, during which you can return and get expedited access to the attraction. But you'll want to use the system wisely.

If, for example, the stand-by (regular) line for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is 45 minutes but the FastPass return time is in an hour and a half or two hours, grab FastPasses. Then, go enjoy the Liberty Belle Riverboat or explore Tom Sawyer Island. When your return time rolls around, go back to Big Thunder and enter the FastPass queue and you’ll have a much-reduced wait time.

My longest FastPass queue was about 25 minutes, and that was on Christmas Eve, so it was totally understandable given the crowd density. If the stand-by line is 20-25 minutes, it’s generally a better idea to just do stand-by.