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So, you think you might want to visit Walt Disney World, but you know nothing about the place? Well, you're on the right post.
This post is meant to provide you with the most basic things you need to know about Walt Disney World before you start planning a visit. While there is a ton to know about planning a trip to Walt Disney World, plenty of people have only the vaguest sense what Walt Disney World really is. Here are the most basic things you need to know about Walt Disney World.
1. Walt Disney World Resort Is Big
Walt Disney World is located in Florida, just outside of Orlando and Kissimmee. Technically, the resort occupies the cities of Bay Lake, Florida and Lake Buena Vista, Florida, both of which are controlled by the Walt Disney Corporation.
Most people know some variation of this, but few realize how actually large the Disney World property is. The entire Walt Disney World Resort is about 25,000 acres. That's about the size of San Francisco or twice the size of Manhattan. The below screenshot shows it takes about 16 minutes to drive across the resort along a highway.
2. Walt Disney World Is More Than One Park
Walt Disney World contains:
Four Theme Parks (Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Epcot, Animal Kingdom)
About 20 Disney-operated hotels (depending on how you count)
12 hotels not operated by Disney
A “downtown” shopping and restaurant district, Disney Springs
A few other less notable features (e.g. golf courses)
If you were just thinking Walt Disney World is “that place with the big castle,” you were probably thinking of Magic Kingdom. But there is much more to Disney World than just Magic Kingdom, as you can see.
3. Walt Disney World Cannot Be Seen in ___ Days.
Yes, that's an intentional blank. Walt Disney World really cannot be seen in any reasonable, finite amount of time. People easily fill ten-day trips at the resort. From rides to dining to ticketed events like Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, there’s always so much to do at Walt Disney World!
If you're planning a trip to Walt Disney World, take this as a good thing. It means you shouldn't be focused on “doing everything,” because you simply cannot.
Typically, a trip in the range of four to seven days is appropriate for a visitor from within the contiguous United States. Guests from abroad or Hawaii / Alaska may want to plan for ten to fourteen days, adding some days at Universal Studios (or other nearby activities) if they’re concerned about overdoing Disney.
4. Walt Disney World Is Not Universal Orlando Resort
Universal Studios Florida and Universal's Islands of Adventure are theme parks at Universal Orlando Resort, a resort complex a few miles from Walt Disney World. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is found in Universal Orlando, not Walt Disney World.
While you can visit the Universal Orlando parks (including their Harry Potter areas) from Disney property, you'll need to do a bit of work. The Universal tickets will be separate tickets you'll need to purchase (we recommend Undercover Tourist) and you'll need to figure out how you’re going to get from Disney property to Universal (we used and recommend Uber).
Adding to the confusion is that one of the four parks at Walt Disney World is “Disney's Hollywood Studios,” a theme park that, like the Universal parks, is themed around cinema. Again, though, the parks have nothing to do with each other.
5. There are Lots of Names to Know
You’ll never get off the ground planning your Disney World trip if you don’t know how to refer to things. People will not “just know what you're talking about” if you don’t. This point is not covering “the name of this technically is...” because that level of detail isn't necessary, but we do want to make sure you know the basic terminology.
The entire resort is Walt Disney World Resort (or Walt Disney World or Disney World). “I'm going to Disney” isn't helpful, as Disney operates resorts all over the world, including several in the United States. Also, “Disney World” refers to the entire resort, not a single park (more below).
The park with Cinderella Castle is Magic Kingdom (not “Disney World”). If you’re thinking of “the Florida version of Disneyland Park,” you're thinking of Magic Kingdom. This is the park with Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Adventureland, Frontierland, Liberty Square, and Main Street U.S.A. It's where you’ll find classic rides like Pirates of the Caribbean and “it’s a small world.” It’s the park generally thought to be the most “kiddie” of the parks.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom is not just a zoo. While Disney went out of its way early on to emphasize that Animal Kingdom is not a zoo, it technically is. It’s also so much more. This is our favorite park, and it is home to the famous land Pandora — The World of Avatar. The park contains thrill rides, like Avatar Flight of Passage, kiddie rides, like TriceraTop Spin, and unique offerings, like Kilimanjaro Safaris.
Hollywood Studios is not Universal Studios. We covered this one above. Besides that, just know this is where Toy Story Land is, where Galaxy's Edge (Star Wars Land) opens August 29, and where The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is found.
Epcot is “the one with all the countries.” The World Showcase at Epcot is where you'll find eleven themed areas celebrating the culture of eleven different countries. The park also has another half, Future World, with a collection of great rides and attractions.
Beyond those, you might want to know the names of any hotels you're interested in. Yes, people will know you mean Animal Kingdom Lodge if you say “the animal hotel.” But they probably will be at a loss if you say “Magic Kingdom's hotel” or “Walt Disney World hotel.”
We’ll cover some more “slang” in some of the following points just so you're not so confused by the lingo in other planning posts.
6. Disney World Has Its Own Free Transit System
On Disney property, you can get around by several means. Almost everywhere you need to go is served by bus. Between some locations, you’ll be better served by taking a boat, walking, or taking the monorail.
Disney’s transit system is free, with the exception of Minnie Vans. Minnie Vans are essentially a service of Lyft that operates between certain points in Walt Disney World.
Remembering that Disney World is big and complicated, you should know that transportation takes time. The only way to walk between any of the parks is the 30-minute walk from Epcot to Hollywood Studios. Beyond that, you're going to find yourself sort of at the whims of transit schedules, unless you want to Uber, which we recommend when you have deadlines to make.
There’s also a complimentary airport bus service called “Magical Express” that is operated by Mears in partnership with Disney. This bus service is exclusively for transporting Disney resort guests between their hotels and Orlando International Airport.
7. There Are Three “Tiers” of Disney Hotels (and a Bonus Category)
First thing’s first: there are “Disney hotels” and there are “non-Disney hotels” at Walt Disney World. “Disney hotels” are hotels that are owned and operated by Disney. These hotels enjoy the full range of perks that Disney offers its vacationing guests.
“Non-Disney hotels” are hotels operated by someone other than Disney. Some of these hotels are on Walt Disney World property, some are not. Some have access to some perks at Disney parks (like extended park hours). On our site, we write mostly about Disney hotels, and that’s what we’re talking about in the rest of this section.
The 20-ish hotels at Walt Disney World that are operated by Disney can be broken down into three tiers: value, moderate, and deluxe. As you can imagine, the categories represent different price levels, with value resorts starting around $112 per night, moderates around $223, and deluxes around $406. When Disney offers deals, some prices see reductions that can be over 20%.
Our tip: don't obsess over tiers. Don't be afraid to save by getting a value or to splurge on a deluxe. Knowing what hotel works best for you in terms of theming, location, and dining options is more important. We’ve had fantastic trips at all levels of the Disney resorts, and we even prefer some value hotels to some deluxe hotels.
Finally, there are Disney Vacation Club villas (aka “Deluxe Villas”). If you're reading this, all you need to know about these rooms is that they’re a separate classification of expensive rooms. You can book them without being a Disney Vacation Club member.
8. Resorts, Dining, and More Are Part of the Experience
Most people focus, as they should, on the parks when planning a Walt Disney World vacation. But the resorts and restaurants are special places, too.
Take it from us, we’re vegetarians who are as far from foodies as you can get, and we love trying new restaurants at Walt Disney World. From bread service at Sanaa to the decor of Be Our Guest to the fine, seaside dining at Narcoossee's, the restaurants of Walt Disney World all offer something special.
Dining reservations at Walt Disney World restaurants are called “ADRs,” short for "Advance Dining Reservations.” You can book your ADRs 180 days in advance. Yes, some restaurants book solidly that far out. Disney even offers Disney Dining Plans for individuals who want to purchase a set number of credits for different dining experience.
Besides resorts and dining, you’ve got several other activities outside the theme parks. The water parks—Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon—are particularly great in the summer. There are two miniature golf courses, Fantasia Gardens and Winter Summerland, as well as several regular (professional quality) golf courses.
9. Walt Disney World Requires Planning
Chances are by now you've figured out Walt Disney World requires planning. If you’re flexible and knowledgable, you definitely could have a great time at Walt Disney World without booking anything in advance, but you might wind up spending a lot of money to just walk around and wait in a few lines. If you just showed up and expected to wander into a good time, you’re likely to be disappointed.
At a minimum, you’ll want to learn how to use FastPass+ to get on all the best rides. FastPass+ is the Disney World system that allows you to “skip the line” on select attractions. Because these lines can get up to three hours (even six hours on New Year's Eve), mastering Fastpass+ is an important part of planning your Walt Disney World visit.
Worried about wrapping your head around this? Then an Authorize Disney Vacation Planner might be for you. We recommend using our form to get a quote from Lauren Quirk At Enchanted Escapes Travel. Lauren can guide you step by step through the process of planning a Walt Disney World vacation!
10. There’s More Than Rides At the Parks
While every park has a diverse offering of rides, there is more to each park than rides. Each park offers shows, including stage performances and "street" performances. They also all have different restaurants, from quick service burger stops to table service three-course meal joints.
Each park has at least one nighttime show, and three offer fireworks. (No fireworks at Animal Kingdom because of the animals.) They also all offer great places to explore and “take in.” This sounds silly, but the detail Disney puts into these parks is unparalleled. We cover the rides and attractions at Walt Disney World in the following posts:
If you want to know what we think makes Animal Kingdom “special,” read our post explaining why it's Disney's best park.
11. Not Everything Is About Your Favorite Movies
You can (and will) have a great time at Walt Disney World even if you’ve never seen a Disney film. There’s no “required watching” before you get to the parks. Sure, you might not get why people line up to meet people dressed as princes and princesses, but the rest of the parks will make sense to you.
12. Walt Disney World Isn’t Just for Kids
Honestly, the mind boggles at the suggestion that Walt Disney World would be just for kids. It offers amazing resorts, amazing dining, and amazing entertainment, all with a level of theming just not found anywhere else.
Adults may not love some of the rides as much as kids. But some adults may find it nice to have quality rides that aren't just the standard roller coasters you find at every amusement park in the world.
If you're a parent planning a trip for the family, be happy, there's plenty for you to look forward to. If you don't have kids or are planning to travel without them, be excited, you're going to have a great time.
13. Walt Disney Never Set Foot In Walt Disney World
This one isn't necessary to planning, but it will help you cut through a lot of nonsense you'll come across on the internet. While Walt Disney started planning Walt Disney World soon after Disneyland opened in 1955, he died in 1966 before construction at Walt Disney World began. The project continued under the direction of Walt's brother, Roy.
So that covers the absolute basics of Walt Disney World!
Did we leave anything out? What would you like to know?
All Your Other Disney World Planning Questions Answered
Don't be overwhelmed by Disney World planning! Take a second to check out our most important content and you'll not only be an expert, but you'll save big $$$ along the way.
Just starting out? Check out our Walt Disney World planning guide! If you're still picking dates, we've got everything you need to know about Disney crowd calendars. For picking your hotel, check out our Walt Disney World hotels guide.
When it comes time to book we’ll help you find discount Disney World tickets. Decide whether you need a dining plan in our Complete Guide to Disney World Dining Plans! And at 180 days out it's time to book those Disney World Advance Dining Reservations!
Don't forget to master your Disney World FastPass+ strategy a few months in advance. We'll keep you out of long lines so you can maximize the magical time in the parks! We've got park-specific guides as well: Magic Kingdom FastPass, Epcot FastPass, Animal Kingdom FastPass, and Hollywood Studios FastPass.
Know what to ride with our guides to: Magic Kingdom rides, Hollywood Studios rides, Epcot rides, and Animal Kingdom rides! Plus learn about the water parks with our guide to Blizzard Beach and our guide to Typhoon Lagoon! And for some some fun prep, check out our Ranking of Every Ride at Walt Disney World.
Finally, before you head out, be sure to check out our to-the-point packing list, 10 essentials you forget to pack for every Disney trip. And if you're interested in saving, there's no better list than our 53 Ways to Save on your Disney trip from start to finish.