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My Walt Disney World Insider's Guide: the Perfect 3-Day Itinerary

July 28, 2014

Mickey and Minnie topiaries
Mickey and Minnie topiaries

Mickey and Minnie topiaries (Photo: Morgan Korn)

Walt Disney World — so much to see, so little time. I’m weeks away from my sixth WDW trip and I’ve finally mastered how to see as much of the theme park as possible in a limited number of days. Some visitors will surely prefer a leisurely Disney vacation — the ideal way to experience each of the six parks — yet many families and couples neither have the time, money, nor patience to spend an entire week with Mickey. More than 18 million people traveled to the Magic Kingdom in 2013 alone, and I have a plan for how to beat the crowds and get the biggest bang for the buck.

Warning: My itinerary may appear to some as fast-paced and intense as Disney’s Space Mountain. But I will never compromise three factors that are essential for every Disney stay: fun, shopping (one never leaves WDW without at least one souvenir), and fireworks (indisputably the best in the world and not to be missed!).

First, some helpful tips before you arrive at the park: 

Our writer models her perfect Disney outfit, minus the flip-flops (Photo: Morgan Korn)

What to pack

I’ve unfortunately learned the hard way that cute sandals and flip-flops are not Disney material. I wore flip-flops for six straight days during my June 2010 vacation, and by day seven I was crawling to the park’s entrance. No matter how comfortable your summer shoes may be, your feet will come to hate them after 10 hours at a park. So my first tip is, sneakers, sneakers, sneakers! Don’t worry — fashion is the last thing anyone cares about when Mickey is in the house. Also, WDW is the only public place where children are encouraged to wear Mickey regalia. So, it’s time to model those Donald Duck and Minnie Mouse T-shirts you’ve purchased from previous Disney excursions. And don’t be afraid to dust off your Mickey ears and princess glow-in-the-dark crowns— you know you want to.  

Related: How to Eat Your Way Through Disneyland Like You’re a Kid Again

Disney is doable, if you get you plan (Photo: Morgan Korn)

Plan ahead

The roadmap below is based on three full days at Walt Disney World. If you’re arriving at MCO (Orlando International Airport) early to mid morning, you still have plenty of time to pack in a full-day’s worth of rides. One drawback of WDW is that dinner and lunch reservations often need to be made weeks in advance – if not months. Disney advises travelers to call 180 days before one’s scheduled departure date for guaranteed seating at some of the most popular restaurants like Magic Kingdom’s Be Our Guest, and Cinderella’s Royal Table. The fact that your day revolves around your dining reservations can certainly be frustrating and inconvenient. Having eaten at the majority of Disney’s resort and park restaurants, I’ve selected what I feel are the best in terms of ambiance, menu selection, and price. Never once have I chosen the Disney meal plan — it’s too expensive in my opinion and I never take advantage of all the meals. Also, many of Disney’s restaurants offer similar food offerings during lunch, so it can be more affordable to have a sit-down lunch than dinner, which is a smarter strategy in terms of crowds too.

For example, Be Our Guest does not take lunch reservations. If you’ve read the online chatter and are eager to try it, be ready to stand in line by 11 a.m. One last tip before we get started: always check the park schedules. I’ve realized over the years that the parks’ hours of operation can change last minute (usually one or two parks will stay open later than previously advertised), and your Disney days should be planned accordingly based on Magic Hours and closing times.

Father figure (Photo: Morgan Korn)

Day One

You landed safely at MCO, picked up your luggage from the baggage carousel, and are sitting on the Disney Magical Express — the Disney bus that will drop you off at your Disney hotel. Once you’re checked in, take a few pictures of the Mickeys secretly hidden in the wallpaper and furniture, and put on your bathing suit! I suggest you spend a few hours at the pool relaxing and re-energizing before the craziness begins. You’ll also have time to scout the resort’s gift shops and befriend other Disney enthusiasts. Plan to arrive at Magic Kingdom (MK) by 5 p.m. – it’s the largest of the 6 parks, and always the last to close. I chose 5 p.m. because that’s usually when couples and families leave the parks to get ready for dinner.

Nighttime is the right time at Disney. (Photo: Morgan Korn)

Related: Bar Crawl: How to Successfully Drink Your Way Through Disney’s Magic Kingdom 

Spend the rest of the evening riding Big Thunder Mountain, It’s a Small World, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (a new attraction that opened in May 2014). At 9 p.m. leave The Magic Kingdom momentarily to watch the Electric Water Pageant — a Disney classic that has been entertaining Disney guests since the 1970s. Sit on the bench across from the Seven Seas Lagoon and enjoy the show! Before the fireworks display at Cinderella’s Castle, stop for a pineapple float at Aloha Isle (in Adventureland) — the coolest way to enjoy a hot Orlando night. I would recommend staying as late as possible at MK, the crowds thin out after the fireworks show, and the lines are much more bearable if there are any at all. Plus, walking around MK at night has a different feel and vibe than during the day, and seems even more magical. I always take advantage of late-night Magic Hours — one year I stayed until 3 a.m.!

Fireworks over Walk Disney World (Photo: Morgan Korn)

Day Two

No Disney vacation is complete without at least one character breakfast. Go to the Beach Club Resort for a breakfast brunch with Mickey and the gang at the Cape May Café (reservations are required). After filling up on unlimited Mickey waffles and scrambled eggs, stroll over to Epcot (a 5-minute walk from the Beach Club), where you’ll get your heart racing on Test Track and Mission: SPACE. For lunch you have two options: you can quell hunger pangs at one of the quick-service cafes in World Showcase (I like L’Artisandes Glaces in France) or you can request a table at Via Napoli (Italy), Chefs de France (France) or San Angel Inn Restaurante (Mexico). Want to save cash? Buy a hot pretzel, Bratwurst, and German beer in Germany! Don’t forget to ask the Disney cast member to deliver your newly purchased souvenirs to your hotel room. You don’t want to be bogged down.

Next up, Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Take the ferry shuttle from Epcot and recline on the deck as the boat captain sails past Disney’s Boardwalk and Epcot resorts (including the Swan and Dolphin). Disney’s Studios has lots to see and do – including its crowd-pleasing Fantasmic! fireworks extravaganza. There are two Fantasmic! seatings – choose the late one to maximize your time at the park. Depending on your energy level, and if you’re traveling with kids, be sure to stop by Jellyrolls on Disney’s Boardwalk. Patrons can’t help but sing along to the show tunes and become mesmerized by the “dueling” pianists. A lively way to top off a jam-packed day.

NOTE: If you chose the pretzel for lunch, head over to Kouzzina or the Flying Fish Café for an early dinner on the boardwalk. I’ve been lucky enough to dine at each one, and have thoroughly enjoyed my meals.

Related: Tech Nerd Tuesday: The New Gadget That Makes Disney Even More Magical

Africa or Disney’s Magical Kingdom? (Photo: Morgan Korn)

Day Three

You have several possibilities for your last and final day. You could spend it getting wet at one of Disney’s two water parks, or on a safari at Animal Kingdom. And if you prefer, you can take additional time exploring Epcot’s World Showcase and sampling more foreign cuisines. Need to recharge? You’ve got my support if you want to sleep late and sunbathe at the pool. Regardless if you’re pool-lounging or ride hopping, please stop for dinner at either Narcoossee’s at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa or reserve a table at the Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show at the Polynesian Resort. Keep in mind that both require advance booking, and Spirit of Aloha is not available every night.  I chose these dining experiences because of the high-quality food AND because you can watch Magic Kingdom fireworks either from Narcoossee’s porch, or on the “beach” at the Polynesian. It’s the perfect way to end a perfect Disney getaway! 

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The author at the Polynesian Resort (Photo: Morgan Korn)