Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom is the world's most popular theme park, attracting more than 17 million visitors a year. With an average of more than 45,000 people a day jamming into the park's 107 acres, advance planning can help make the difference between a magical vacation or a crowded nightmare.
Few people limit their Disney trip to the Magic Kingdom. It's just one of four theme parks in the Walt Disney World Resort, and Disney's ticket structure encourages multi-day visits. A one-day ticket to the Magic Kingdom will cost you $89. But if you buy a 4-day ticket -- one day per park -- the cost drops to just $64 a day. And if you buy a 10-day ticket (the longest-duration ticket Disney sells online), the cost per day drops to just $31.80. So it makes the most financial sense to plan a Magic Kingdom visit in the context of a longer Walt Disney World vacation.
What to do before you go
With all the ticket options Disney makes available, you'll definitely want to do your research -- and buy your tickets -- before you arrive at the park. Disney tickets are not fixed to a particular date and can be used at any time, so long as you use all your days within 14 days of using the ticket for the first time. (For an additional charge of between $13 and $28 a day, you can add a "no expiration" option to your tickets, which can be nice hedge against future price increases if you're planning to return to Disney in the future. You'll have to call Disney at +1-407-939-7211 to buy this option -- it's no longer available online, or listed at the ticket booths. Definitely get the full 10-day ticket if you're buying the "no-expire" option, to lock in the lowest price per day.)
Because Disney tickets aren't tied to a specific date, you can -- and should -- wait to buy them until after you've booked your hotel. Disney offers dozens of on-site hotel properties aimed at a variety of budgets, and sometimes combo room/ticket packages can offer a good deal on a Disney World vacation, so look into those options before buying your tickets.
If you decide to stay off-site, plan to bring or rent a car, as Disney theme parks are located miles away from all off-site hotels, and public transportation in the Orlando area is extremely limited. Once your room is booked, buy your Disney World tickets online via Disney's website, or a licensed broker such as Undercover Tourist. If you're visiting the Orlando area for a convention, you also can buy discounted Disney tickets specifically for convention attendees. Never buy used Disney World tickets, from Craigslist or other sources, as Disney uses a finger scan system to ensure that only one person may use a specific ticket.
If you can visit during the school year, you'll find somewhat smaller crowds than during traditional vacation periods, such as summer and spring break. The week between Christmas and New Year's is the busiest of the year. And Disney runs a variety of special events during the year, most notably several marathon weekends that draw tens of thousands of runners to the resort. So there's not much "off season" left anymore.
Disney allows visitors to make restaurant reservations six months in advance. So if you want to eat at some of the Magic Kingdom's most popular restaurants, including the new Be Our Guest restaurant and the Cinderella's Royal Table restaurant, you'll need to know the dates of your visit that far in advance, as other visitors might snap up all those reservation times on the day they become available, 180 days out. Call +1-407-WDW-DINE or visit Disney World's website to book. (If you can't get dinner reservations for Be Our Guest, the restaurant also is open for lunch on a walk-up basis only.)
Disney allows people who've booked a room at one of its on-site hotels to start making dining reservations for their entire stay 180 days in advance of the first day of their visit, instead of 180 days in advance of the date of they wish to dine. That allows on-site guests a head start of up to 10 days in booking dining times. Visit Disney World's special offers page to see current deals on hotel packages, then go to the resort's home page to price other hotel and ticket options for the dates you're considering.
Certain Disney hotel packages now allow you to use Disney World's new "Fastpass+" system to reserve ride times on selected attractions, in addition to making restaurant reservations. Otherwise, all Disney World visitors can use the resort's original Fastpass system to make free ride reservations once you're inside the park. Just visit the Fastpass distribution machines next to a ride to get a return time for that attraction. You can get another Fastpass for another attraction two hours later, or after your return time, whichever comes first. Not everyone needs to be present to get a Fastpass, so you can send one person ahead with everyone's tickets to get the Fastpasses for your entire family. Remember, you now must use your Fastpasses during their assigned return time window -- you can no longer return at any time later in the day, as visitors once could.
When you get to Disney World
Plan on making an early start to enjoy as much of the Magic Kingdom as you can in the morning before other visitors crowd the park. Look up the Magic Kingdom's operating hours online, and look for dates that have hours listed under the "Extra Magic Hours" column. Extra Magic Hours is Disney's program that allows on-site hotel guests to get into certain parks before they open to other guests in the morning, or to stay after the park has closed to other visitors. If you're not getting into a park early under Extra Magic Hours, you do not want to start the day at a theme park that has Extra Magic Hours that morning. It'll already be filled with guests by the time you get in, negating any advantage of the early start. Pick another park to start the day.
If the Magic Kingdom does not have Extra Magic Hours on the day of your visit, plan to arrive at the parking lot an hour before the park's posted opening time anyway. (Arrive 90 minutes early during very busy periods, such as Christmas and Independence Day weeks.) Parking costs $14 a day at the Walt Disney World Resort, but once you've paid for the day, you can park in any other Disney theme park parking lot for no additional charge, so save your parking pass. Once you've parked, you'll take a tram to the Transportation and Ticket Center, where you'll see hundreds of people who didn't buy the tickets in advance queued up and wasting time buying tickets instead of making their way into the park.
The Magic Kingdom stands on the far side of the Seven Seas Lagoon from the Transportation and Ticket Center, so you'll need to ride either a monorail or a ferry boat to get to the park. This is your first big decision of the day, assuming both options are open. If the line for the monorail extends all the way down the platform ramp and into a queue at ground level, choose the higher-capacity ferryboat instead. If the crowd's light and there's not much of a line waiting for the monorail, they typically run more frequently than the ferry and allow you a higher vantage view of the resort area.
What to do inside the Magic Kingdom
Unless it's dreadfully cold, start your day with Splash Mountain, a log flume ride in the park's Frontierland, featuring the characters from Disney's long-buried musical "The Song of the South." Splash Mountain will have some of the park's longer waits later in the day, so get this popular attraction out of the way early, before long queues form. You must be 40 inches tall to ride Splash Mountain, but Disney offers a child-swap option if you have children under that height, which allows an adult who waits with the child to ride immediately after the rest of your group gets off the ride, without having to wait in the line again.
After Splash Mountain, head next door to the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster. Thunder's a great first coaster for young theme park fans, as it's build on a man-made "mountain," meaning that the track itself if somewhat hidden by the terrain and never all that far above the "ground." It's a relatively mild coaster, too, topping out at just 32 miles per hour. (You drove faster than that getting to the park.) Thunder also has a 40-inch height requirement.
The next "must-see" in the Magic Kingdom, based upon our readers' ratings, is the Haunted Mansion in Liberty Square, a short walk around the edge of the Rivers of America. It's a ride through a haunted house that's more funny than scary, though the darkness and special effects popping up at you might disturb sensitive youngsters. But it's a favorite of millions of Disney fans, who consistently rate this among the world's best theme park attractions.
Your fourth "must-see" stop is next door in the park's Fantasyland, for the Mickey's PhilharMagic 3D movie. A musical romp featuring dozens of Disney characters, Mickey's PhilharMagic plays in a relatively high capacity theater. You might choose to leave this show for later in the day if you'd prefer to visit some of the lower capacity (and thus, longer-wait) attractions in Fantasyland first, before their lines get too bad, such as Peter Pan's Flight, Dumbo, and Enchanted Tales with Belle.
With the Magic Kingdom's top "must-see" attractions out of the way early, relax and find your own way around the rest of the park during the day. Remember, this is a vacation -- not a military operation. You don't need to schedule every minute of the entire day to get your money's worth from your visit. Here are our readers' top recommendations in each of the park's themed lands:
Get Fastpasses for reserved ride times later in the day. If a standby line looks too long, remember that waits get longest between noon and early evening, getting shorter during parade times and then again later in the evening. Opt for high-capacity rides (such as Pirates) and theater shows in the middle of the afternoon to fill time before your next Fastpass return. Or head back to your hotel for a swim or a nap, if you're staying on-site.
Where to eat
If you didn't get dining reservations in advance, Be Our Guest is open on a walk-up basis for lunch, though the lines can get long. Other highly-rated counter-service options include Columbia Harbour House for seafood, Sleepy Hollow Refreshments for fried chicken waffle sandwiches and Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Cafe for burgers with an elaborate toppings bar. Dole Whips and Citrus Swirls, available at separate locations in Adventureland, are two popular Disney treats on a hot day. Check our Magic Kingdom park listings page for more dining and attraction options.
Freebies in the Magic Kingdom
You don't have to buy high-priced souvenirs to take home a keepsake from your Magic Kingdom visit. If you ride the Tomorrowland Speedway, kids can ask for their own souvenir "Driver's License." Check the park's published show times (you can pick up a schedule at the front gate or next to any store cash register in the park) to be part of "Captain Jack's Pirate Tutorial" in Adventureland. Kids who participate get a free "pirate diploma." Or visit the Fire Station on Main Street to pick up a starter pack of cards to play Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, an interactive game that you can play in stations around the park. If you're celebrating a birthday, anniversary or a first visit to the park, you can get a free souvenir button at City Hall on Main Street. And if you take one of the "Friendship" boats over to a hotel anywhere in Walt Disney World Resort, a free souvenir trading card is often available, if you ask nicely.
If you've got the stamina to make it through the day, the Magic Kingdom offers fireworks every evening, and multiple parade performances most days. Plan to stake out a place at least an hour in advance for the best views on busy days. But if the park is offering two shows of its nighttime parade, opt for the second one. Most people will go to the first, so go on rides during that show, then watch the second parade, when most people have left the park for the day and you can walk up to the parade route for a great view without having to wait.
What's next at the Magic Kingdom?
A new princess meet and greet location, Princess Fairytale Hall, will open in Fantasyland in late 2013. And the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a family roller coaster through the Show White dwarfs' gem mine, is under construction for a 2014 opening.
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