11 Genius Walt Disney World Vacation Hacks, From a Former Cast Member

I learned how to take advantage of every magical moment, and now you will, too.

Mickey Mouse
Photo: David Roark

One of the best experiences of my life was the year I worked at Walt Disney World. There is truly no other place like it on Earth. After working nearly 365 at everyone's dream vacation destination, I learned a lot—from how to know if a wait time is really just 30 minutes, to how to get that coveted Be Our Guest reservation, and everything in between. For what you're spending on plane tickets, hotel rooms, and character dining experiences; you deserve to get the most bang for your buck.

Here are my top insider tips for making the most of your time at Disney.

01 of 11

Make an itinerary months in advance.

Epcot

Plan out each day on paper or your phone before your trip—especially if you're traveling with young children. I'm not talking airfare, hotel, tickets; I mean research details like which rides are appropriate for your children, and how many you think they can handle before needing a nap. What restaurants serve food that your family will eat? What shows, fireworks, or other events are can't-miss?

By setting a detailed schedule well in advance, based on knowing exactly what you want, you'll get the most out of every expensive minute.

RELATED: How to Plan the Best Vacation

02 of 11

Avoid visiting during peak season.

Epcot International Fine and Wine Festival

If you can only visit Walt Disney World during peak season—spring break, holidays, and summer—you can still have a great vacation. But visit off season—end of January to beginning of February, end of September, or between Halloween and the week before Thanksgiving (not the week of Thanksgiving)—and you'll increase amount of ground you can cover and decrease your stress level.

Off-season lines are shorter, and parks and hotels are less crowded and less expensive than in peak season. And you can usually attend the same special events—like the Epcot Food and Wine Festival, Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, and the Epcot Flower and Garden show—without the crowds.

03 of 11

Embrace rainy days.

Rainy Day Cavalcade - Magic Kingdom - Walt Disney World Resort

When the rains come, people stay away from the parks—or rush to certain rides that offer a place to hide from the deluge. Instead, throw ponchos over you and the kids and head for the outdoor attractions that others avoid during a downpour.

Some of the my best animal encounters as a safari driver were in the pouring rain: baby elephants cannon-balling into a watering hole, and rhinos rolling around in the mud. Too bad there were so few guests on my truck—they missed out on phenomenal sights that just didn't happen on sunny days.

04 of 11

Make dinner reservations at the last minute.

Victoria and Albert's

Before I say more, this does not apply to every restaurant. Generally, reservations book up to 60 days in advance, so make as many as you can well before you get on the plane. But for really popular restaurants (like Be Our Guest) where you couldn't get a reservation in advance, wait until the day-of to make a inquiry.

Here's how it works: Many guests cancel their reservations at the last minute or just don't show up. Go in the morning or early afternoon and ask about a table that day, and the host will likely take your name and number and let you know if something becomes available. This doesn't always work, but you have nothing to lose.

Be Our Guest tip: Go to the host's booth in front of the restaurant—it's shaped like a castle tower—just before the restaurant opens for lunch to ask about dinner reservations. Most guests don't know that you can inquire about a table that day, or where the hostess booth even is, so you'll be at the top of the list.

05 of 11

Skip a sit-down breakfast and run to the rides first.

Disney Soarin' Ride

A large, sit-down breakfast is expensive (whether it's a Disney restaurant or off-site hotel) and takes up valuable time. The first hour a park is open is a great time to scurry to rides or attractions that fill up fast. Pack something to eat while you're in line or eat breakfast afterward.

Another great time to hit popular rides like Frozen Ever After and Soarin' is during the fireworks and parades. If you've got kids, this strategy may be a hard sell; but if you're lucky enough to visit a park more than once, spend one day seeing the shows and one day skipping them in favor of the big rides.

06 of 11

Know your stroller before entering the park.

Disney Stroller Parking

On its face, this sounds stupid to a parent who handles their stroller every day; but this is important, whether you're renting or bringing your own.

Know how to close up your stroller fast: Handing your stroller parking attendant an already closed stroller gets your family on the ride faster and avoids the awkwardness of wrestling with the darn thing while people stampede around you.

Also, put your family name on your stroller, because you may think you know what it looks like, but when you walk into a stroller parking area and see a sea of black Bugaboo Cameleons all in a row, you're going to wish you labeled yours.

07 of 11

Check out available guest services before your trip.

Disney Guest Services Sign

Every park has several Guest Services stations that most people don't even know exist—like baby care centers that provide private places to nurse, change your baby, or even sit your kids in front of the television for some down time. They also have microwaves, sinks, and on-site shops with diapers, sunscreen, and other essentials you may have forgotten. Most importantly, this is where cast members bring lost children to wait safely for their parents.

The parks also have first aid stations where you can speak to someone if you're feeling ill or get medicine for a headache. Knowing where they are, even if you never need them, can bring you peace of mind.

08 of 11

Take full advantage of the MyDisneyExperience app.

MyDisneyExperience App

When it comes to making the most of your Disney vacation, there's an app for that. MyDisneyExperience is like a personal vacation assistant, allowing you to organize or make dinner reservations; or navigate to nearby attractions, amenities, and guest services. Use it to access park maps, updated show times, updated wait times for attractions, and much more.

Download this app right now and start using it to plan your trip, because it's helpful even when you're nowhere near the parks. Use it often throughout your visit to the park, but bring a portable phone charger with you, because it eats up quite a bit of battery.

09 of 11

Always doubt the wait times.

Disney Crowds

The sad reality: Posted wait times aren't always correct. Perhaps the app is loading slowly, or the ride hasn't been updated lately—but either way, it's worth checking out the ride line for yourself.

How to determine wait times without referring to the app? For many rides, there is an indoor queue and an outdoor queue: If the line ends outside and wraps around the attraction but the sign above the entrance says 20 minutes, chances are it's wrong, and you can expect to wait more like 45 minutes to an hour. And when you're just not sure, ask a cast member to confirm the wait time if something doesn't look right.

10 of 11

Use long lines to your advantage.

Disney Ride Line

Stuck in a two-hour-long line? Take advantage of the down time by letting the kids nap in the stroller, give them a phone or iPad to distract them, or send an adult to a nearby food stand for a quick stand-up lunch. Then, after you get on-and-off the ride, go directly to the next activity without making a rest stop (unless somebody needs a bathroom run because, sadly, there is no queue in Walt Disney World that includes a bathroom.)

11 of 11

When in doubt, ask a cast member.

Disney Guest Services

That's what they're there for! No question is a stupid question (trust me, we've heard them all), and if they don't know the answer, chances are they know a cast member nearby who does.

Most people who work for Disney love what they do, and love interacting with guests and helping them have a magical day in the parks. So if you ever need anything at all, just ask!

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