photo: Todd Anderson/Disney

Everything You Need to Know for a Perfect Disney Vacation

By Natasha Mekhail

A visit to one (or both) of the two Disney resorts in the United States can be a daunting experience. There’s just so much to see and do! But you hardly need to wish on a star to keep everyone happy. A bit of advance planning with our Disney survival guide—plus more advice and booking assistance from AMA Travel’s Disney specialists—will go a long way toward ensuring you and your family have a memorable trip to the happiest place(s) on earth.

The number of available Disney packages is, in the words of Mary Poppins, “Supercalifragilistic!” Finding the right one will help you make the most of your stay. Start by calling an AMA Travel counsellor: Disney has designated AMA Travel an Authorized Disney Vacation Planner, thanks to our experts’ focused knowledge.

Whether you’re heading to California’s Disneyland Resort or Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, your specialist can recommend hotels, airport transfers, tips for ride lineups and pre-booked dining tailored to your family’s ages, interests, budget and preferred length of stay.

And they don’t just talk about Disney—they’ve truly been there and done it. AMA Travel’s Deb Fong has visited Disney resorts 21 times. Her advice for structuring a day: Do your research in advance. “Use park maps to plan each day’s hit-list of attractions while building in some downtime,” she says. “And bring a stroller, even for older kids. It gives them a rest and you a place to store essentials like water, snacks and sunscreen.”

Infographic showing features of Disneyland Resort and Walt Disney World Resort.

Check out these must-rides, must-sees and must-eats.

Space Mountain: This famous ’70s coaster was developed with help from a NASA astronaut to guarantee thrilling blast-offs. Oh, and did we mention it’s all in the dark?

Character dining: Sip tea with princesses in Cinderella’s royal banquet hall or join Mickey for a backyard barbecue. Meals sell out fast—pre-book with an AMA Travel specialist.

Indiana Jones Adventure: A riveting dark ride takes you through an Indy adventure. Yes, you will have to “outrun” a giant rolling boulder.

Radiator Springs Racers: A thrilling race through the world of Cars. No detail has been overlooked: It’s the “car”-toon come to life.

Introducing Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, Disney’s newest immersive attraction

Live stage shows: Live-action versions of films like Frozen (Disneyland) and Finding Nemo (Walt Disney World). The best part? Shows are included with park entry.

Soarin’ Around the World: Feel like you’re flying a hang glider across the globe thanks to 180-degree cinematography, wind, sound and even site-specific scents.

Matterhorn Bobsleds: A coaster-type ride that sends you careening down (and through) a scale model of the famed Swiss Matterhorn mountain.

Jedi training: At Trials of the Temple, “younglings” don a Jedi robe and get a lesson in wielding a light saber before facing off against a real-life Star Wars villain.

Disney resorts character dining minnie mouse
Character dining experiences are incredibly popular (photo: Matt Stroshane/Disney)

The latest park offerings are really out of this world!

Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout
At Disney California Adventure Park, an animatronic Rocket leads you on a mission to save Star-Lord, Drax, Gamora and Groot, who’ve been trapped by The Collector. You’ll board a gantry lift up a tower and experience randomized scenes featuring the characters. Whether you’ve seen the films or not, this drop ride’s thrill factor is through the roof—literally!

Pandora: The World of Avatar
Walt Disney World
Spanning five hectares, this land within Disney’s Animal Kingdom recreates Avatar’s moon-planet of Pandora. Disney Imagineers captured its elements, from floating mountains to bioluminescent flora. (Be sure to visit the park by day and at night to see its transformation.) Pandora features two attractions: Na’vi River Journey, a dark ride through a glowing nighttime jungle, and Avatar Flight of Passage, an exhilarating 3D flight on a winged banshee that’s so realistic, it even breathes.

disney resorts beat the lines

These throwback attractions never get old.

Mad Tea Party: The spinning tea cups inspired by Alice in Wonderland were a hit upon their inauguration in 1955 and are an Instagram favourite today. Whirl your cup as quickly as you want, depending on how fast you turn its central wheel.

It’s a Small World: It’s been lauded by UNICEF and spoofed on The Simpsons, but there’s no denying the appeal of this 1966 icon. Cruise merrily through the countries of the world—then see how long it takes to get the song out of your head.

Jungle Cruise: While the tribal and animal animatronics haven’t changed since this outdoor boat ride launched in 1955, today’s guided tour pokes fun at their vintage stylings and dubious political correctness.

Pirates of the Caribbean: It’s the 1967 ride that inspired the Hollywood franchise. And while Jack Sparrow may only have joined their ranks in 2006, the original pirate animatronics and their rum-soaked bacchanalia still hold up.

Dress the part at the Disney parks.

1 Comfy kicks are key to having a magical day

2 Character tees span the Disney universe from Goofy to Groot

3 Mouse ears range from classic black to glowing Star Wars versions

4 Electric Mickey bubble blowers provide endless entertainment, especially in lineups

…or go full princess: At Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique (both resorts), kids are made over as princesses and knights. Packages range from $64.95 USD—for hair, makeup, nails and a sash—to $199.95 USD for full styling with a costume. Pre-book through your AMA Travel specialist to avoid any royal disappointments.

disney resorts adult grownup experiences
Book a massage or sip a cocktail during time without the kids (photos: Kent Phillips/Disney; Matt Stroshane/Disney)

Pencil in some adult-only time—because it’s your vacation too!

Golf at Walt Disney World’s four championship courses.

Dine on global cuisine at Walt Disney World’s Epcot Inter-national Food & Wine Festival.

Unwind with a massage at Walt Disney World’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa and Disneyland’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa.

Drink craft cocktails at Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar in Walt Disney World and Carthay Circle Lounge in Disneyland.

Dance the night away in the entertainment districts: Walt Disney World’s Disney Springs (open until midnight) and Disneyland’s Downtown Disney (open to 2 a.m.).

Whatever your budget, Disney Resorts cook up fantastic fare.

LOW | Rancho del Zocalo Restaurante, Frontierland
Expect wholesome entrees like fire-grilled chicken, burritos and tostada salad at this Mexican eatery. Enjoy them on the bougainvillea-covered patio, where colourful tiles and bubbling fountains evoke a 19th-century hacienda.

HIGH Napa Rose, Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel and Spa
Californian cuisine paired with an extensive wine list. For a night out, opt for the Vintner’s Table, a four-to-five-course tasting menu of seasonal specialties designed by chef Andrew Sutton.

Five big benefits of planning a trip with AMA Travel

LOW | Columbia Harbour House, Liberty Square
Walt Disney World
A seafood restaurant the whole family can get behind! You’ll love the lobster roll (a deal at only $14.99 USD) and grilled salmon entrees. They’ll love the Smuckers Uncrustable sandwich pocket, served with a Danimals smoothie and GoGo Squeez.

HIGH | Victoria and Albert’s, Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa
Walt Disney World
This CAA/AAA Five Diamond restaurant focuses on modern American cuisine, but chef Scott Hunnel also infuses his seven- and 10-course tasting menus with healthy doses of Scottish langoustines and Piedmont white truffles.

disney resorts light show nighttime
Nightly light shows ensure the end of your day is dazzling (photo: Disney)

Nightly shows mean the fun doesn’t stop when the sun goes down!

Main Street Parade and Fireworks
Disneyland & Walt Disney World
This illuminated procession features floats from classic Disney movies like Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and Snow White, as well as costumed characters. The parade down Main Street ends with spectacular fireworks over Cinderella’s Castle.

World of Color
This dramatic and highly technical show in the Paradise Pier Lagoon combines 1,200 sound-activated water fountains with video projections. Highlights from Disney animations and live-action films play against this dazzling watery screen to music performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.

Walt Disney World
The story of earth is revealed in this incredible sound, light and pyrotechnics show over World Showcase Lagoon. Playing the role of our globe is a 350,000-pound spherical video display system, the first of its kind in, well, the world. Bonus: The narration is by Jim Cummings, voice of Winnie the Pooh.

River of Lights
Walt Disney World
Set in Animal Kingdom, this show on Discovery River takes it cues from the natural world. Real footage from Disneynature is combined with animation, floating sets, costumed actors and light projections to showcase the circle of life.