Daunted by Disney World: A First-Timer’s Guide to Finding Magic in the Madness

What I learned from the most complicated vacation on earth

Fireworks light up a night sky over a castle in Disney World

Photo: Adobe Stock

Fireworks over Magic Kingdom Park in Disney World.

Here are two facts about children: If you surprise them with a trip to Disney World, they will be delighted. If you don’t, they’ll be fine. Take it from this elder millennial: Growing up, my idea of a resort vacation was a Holidome (remember those?) on the way to Grandma’s house, and all I had to do to visit Cinderella’s castle was open a squeaky vinyl VHS case (and those?). Life was good.

Bermuda shoreline
Stay in Touch with G&G
Get Due South, our weekly travel newsletter.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

As a parent, though, I’d grown increasingly curious about the place I envisioned as a family-friendly Las Vegas, with its fake Eiffel tower, buffet dinners, and Chip ’n’ Dales. What was it about a complex of amusement parks outside Orlando that turned my mom friends into gushing teenagers? Why were grown men sharing photos of themselves wearing Mickey Mouse T-shirts, plastic lightsabers holstered into their jeans, on social media?

Most of all, why, whenever I told someone my family was headed to Disney World for the first time, did it open up a faucet of unsolicited, jargon-filled advice:

Pick one person in your group to manage Genie Plus and book Lightning Lanes. My wife was on her phone every morning at seven sharp.

It took three of us tapping refresh to get into the Virtual Queue—worth it for Guardians of the Galaxy!

We did one quick-service and one sit-down meal a day. Take advantage of mobile orders! 

Try to arrive right when it opens to rope-drop a ride, and be prepared to run.

We sustained the kids on souvenir popcorn. Two-dollar refills!

And that was just one person’s brain dump. Among the Disney veterans I spoke with, the impulse to pontificate was nearly universal, leaving me to wonder: Were my friends just that into it? Or maybe they truly meant to help, knowing the difference between the happiest place on earth and a hellscape of snaking lines and screaming children lay in a few insider hacks.

photo: AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey
Parked strollers at Epcot.

I knew one thing. As a working parent who struggles to serve dinner before 8:00 p.m. and reads school bulletins two weeks after they’re sent, I wouldn’t be going on this trip if not for my mother-in-law. Here are two facts about her: She’s a retired nurse manager who worked for four decades at a hospital in downtown Chicago, and she’s devoted to her grandkids. In other words, she has all the organizational skills, unflappability, free time, and drive one needs to plan a Disney trip these days—so naturally she hired someone else to do it.

For first-time Mouseketeers, enlisting the aid of a travel agent has become commonplace if not a necessity. Often credentialed through the online College of Disney Knowledge, these third-party consultants know how to snag rooms, rides, and restaurants, which can feel like a competitive sport. Because they typically rely on commissions from Disney, they’re also a rare freebie in a place where price hikes routinely outpace inflation. (Families now pay an average of $4,000 for a five-night, mid-range trip, according to Vox.) 

And having a fairy godmother never hurts when slaying a dragon. The scale of Disney World is stunning—a campus twice the size of Manhattan housing four theme parks (plus two water parks, four golf courses, and a baseball complex); thirty-four resorts; more than four hundred eateries; and a multimodal public transportation system that could move a mid-sized city. Across it all, some 75,000 employees—an NFL stadium’s worth—conspire to make the magic happen, from the ride attendants dressed as Stormtroopers to the custodians hosing down the grounds nightly to the international staff bussing tables at Epcot to the drivers bussing babies back to their sweet, sweet beds. 

photo: Elizabeth Florio
The author’s kids with Chewbacca at Hollywood Studios.

They’re far outnumbered. Disney doesn’t share attendance data, but according to the most recent report from the Themed Entertainment Association Index, more than 47 million people visited its four main Florida parks (Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, and Epcot) in 2022. That’s an average of about 130,000 guests a day, though not all days are equal draws. In the annual bonanza between Christmas and New Year’s—incidentally the same week my family showed up—that number is much higher.

Disney travel agents know this and will make sure you book your meals the moment the green flag flies (at approximately 6:00 a.m. sixty days before your trip; reservations can fill up within seconds). They’ll guide you to the right hotels for your budget—don’t worry, you’ll still have ten to choose from—and remind you to order your MagicBands, those precious pieces of digitized plastic that grant access to every park, every ride, your hotel room, and a daily panic attack about the thing falling off your kid’s wrist.

They also keep tabs on head-spinning policy changes. Just last month, for example, Disney ditched a pandemic-era rule requiring advance reservations at individual parks. Now, as long as you have a date-based ticket, you can wake up and decide if you want to ride Everest at Animal Kingdom or Slinky Dog at Hollywood Studios or both, “park-hopping” until your feet fall off. 

A more controversial change came in 2021 with the axing of FastPass, a free program that allowed visitors to reserve rides and skip the lengthy standby lines. Enter Genie+, a paid, app-based service that lets users book what’s called Lightning Lanes, with some fine print. For example:

*The cost of Genie+ fluctuates based on demand (generally between $15 and $40 per person in your party, per day), and it even sells out on rare occasions.

**But you can’t buy it until midnight the night before you plan to use it, and you can’t book your first Lightning Lane until 7:00 a.m. the day of. This applies to each day of your trip (just in case you thought you were getting any sleep).

***Only after you’ve tapped into your first Lightning Lane—or 120 minutes have passed, whichever comes first—can you use the app to book your next ride.

****Unless that ride requires an Individual Lightning Lane purchase or the Virtual Queue, which is a different, more competitive booking system. 

*****If all that sounds convoluted, you can bypass the whole thing by hiring a private VIP tour guide—but at $450 to $900 an hour, I’m not sure even Prince Ali Ababwa is on board.

Genie+, in other words, is a fresh hell for my mother-in-law and many others her age who tend not to transact their lives with a smartphone. And so, at the one-yard line, she handed off the ball to my husband, who hopped on a debriefing call with the travel agent while I blew out the candles on my fortieth birthday cake. Then we packed up our portable chargers and coordinating T-shirts and set off for Orlando.

photo: Elizabeth Florio
The author having fun on Tower of Terror.

And oh, the humanity. On this busiest of holiday weeks, the streets of Tomorrowland were more crowded than the terminals of Hartsfield-Jackson. The replica of St. Mark’s Square at Epcot was more teeming than the real St. Mark’s in Venice. I suddenly understood why Disney micromanages every part of the customer experience—why, for example, they hide characters inside restaurants where headset-wearing staffers appear to track their moves like air traffic controllers. (“Daisy Duck, cleared for landing at table three. Request ground stop; Aurora overshot table six.”) If Goofy wandered freely around the park as he did in my childhood, he’d be mobbed.

Was it still magical? Let’s just say I could hear the ridiculous “Woooo!” sounds coming out of my mouth during Avatar Flight of Passage, but I couldn’t stop them. Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind took us on such a backwards-blasting, tilt-spiraling mindbender that I pulled up a YouTube video of the coaster afterward, just to verify what happened. But my favorite rides—perhaps because I’d heard their names for so long—were the classics. Tower of Terror is pure masochistic perfection. Space Mountain, as the kids say, still slaps. 

Even as my inner child frolicked, the actual children moved me to tears, twice—once during the Christmas parade, when my gaze zoomed out from the character-bedecked floats to the sea of mesmerized tots on their parents’ shoulders. And again during the last dinner of our trip, when my nine-year-old son raised his cup of Sprite and, unprompted, toasted to his grandparents, thanking them for the best vacation of his life. Hear, hear. 

What my son didn’t know, of course, was how wrong it could have gone. Thanks to my husband’s obsessive attention to the app, our group hit most of the major rides with minimal wait times, waltzing past queues that stretched two, even three hours for the big-ticket attractions. Whenever we did contend with a line, my children immediately fell to bickering; I knew what the dead-eyed, mouse-eared masses in standby were going through, and no three-minute ride is worth it.

photo: Elizabeth Florio
New Year’s Eve at Epcot.

Is it Disney’s fault some people don’t do their homework or opt not to pay for the privilege of Lightning Lanes? Of course not. But Disney does control the crowd size. The parks do hit capacity (though what “capacity” means isn’t public information). The thought of some families—any family—scraping together thousands of dollars just to languish in lines caused a surge of guilt every time I strapped myself in for another joyride.

And so I understand why my friends can’t shut up about the place. It’s the same reason I’ve written an entire essay about it. Missing out on the magic of Disney World by never going is one thing. Missing out on it while you’re there is quite another. So here’s my own piece of Disney advice: Find yourself a devoted mother-in-law (and yes, get the refillable popcorn). Or just take the kids to a hotel pool—they will be delighted.