We all remember our first trip to Disney. We remember marveling at Cinderella’s Castle and the first time we met Mickey Mouse. We also remember the mistakes we’ve made – underpacking, overpacking, forgetting sunscreen, or using a FastPass for Stitch’s Great Escape.
I’ll never forget my family’s first trip to Disney and I’ll definitely never forget our first Christmas vacation. We underpacked, we misplanned our days, and we completely underestimated the crowds. But we learned. The next year we planned some more. Sure, we made some more mistakes, but we learned again. Finally, as we prepared for our fifth Christmas trip last year and now look forward to our sixth, we know what to expect and can correctly plan our days.
So whether you’re planning your first Christmas trip or just looking to learn from other people’s blunders, here’s a list of the biggest mistakes you can make on your first Christmas vacation to Disney:
Is there anything better than planning a vacation to Disney that fits perfectly within your budget? I still remember watching my parents crunch the numbers to see if this would be the year that we can return to Walt Disney World. Luckily, my mom is an accountant! It’s a little easier now, as my sister and I pay our own way to Disney – but there was a time that we relied on our parents for our vacations’ financial backing.
It’s more expensive to travel to Disney during the main holidays – like Christmas, Easter and July 4th. True, it’d be far less expensive to travel in September or October, but by planning your trip and your expenses, you can make the trip possible. You can save by opting for a Value Resort rather than a Moderate, or traveling within the free dining window (checking in by December 21st.)
Even if you’re on the meal plan, you’re bound to spend money on drinks and/or food. Plan a budget for food and souvenirs. Those sodas and snacks definitely add up, and a day at Downtown Disney can really put you in a hole.
Staying Off Disney Property
Staying off site often comes in handy when planning a trip to Walt Disney World. When it comes to staying offsite, I believe in “to each their own.” But Christmas week may be the worst time to stay off property at Disney. Off-site guests are definitely at a disadvantage when it comes to Christmas week. Magic Kingdom will often hit a Phase 3 closure on Christmas Day. Magic Kingdom and EPCOT will often hit a Phase 2 or 3 closure on New Year’s Eve Day, and I’ve witnessed Magic Kingdom hit Phase 3 on December 26th and 27th. You can stay off site, but you risk being turned away due to phased closures. If you do choose to stay off site, purchase a park hopper and/or get to the parks at rope drop to ensure you get in.
Guests staying off-site also book FP+ later. Those staying on-site may book up to 60 days in advance (+14 days thereafter.) Off-site guests with park tickets may book their FastPass+ reservations up to 30 days before their scheduled park day. With so many guests staying on-site, there will be a limited selection of FP+ rides available by the time your window opens.
Trying to See and Do Everything
You paid a lot for your vacation, so you want to make the most of it. Understandable. But you’re setting yourself up for failure if you think you’re going to see and do everything. Between the crowds and the sheer volume of things to do at Walt Disney World, you will not see and do everything. This is why you need to plan. Plan out your days, secure your FP+ selections, and take advantage of extended park and extra magic hours. My family has our own personal “Must Dos” at Disney and we choose a few new things to check out. Then we plan around those plans.
Not Using FP+
FP+ gets a lot of mixed reviews. Some people love it, some hate it, some are indifferent toward it. My family loves it. We first used FP+ back when it was still in beta in December, 2013. At the time, the parks were still issuing paper FastPasses, so we took advantage of “double dipping.” Was it cheating? Sure. But it made our time in the park seamless.
Last year was a little different. With paper FastPasses no longer available, we noticed just how long the lines were. If you didn’t have a FP+, you were going to wait a long time to get on a ride. It was a grim realization: gone were the days of riding Tower of Terror three or four times over the course of a trip. If we didn’t have a FP+, we were going to wait 90+ minutes to get on the popular rides. My only assumption is this: because so many people vacation at Disney the week of Christmas, many of the FP+ selections are reserved at the 60-day mark. One-day and off-site guests are at a disadvantage for FP+ reservations and are forced to wait on the standby line instead – thus leading to astronomical ride wait times.
It’d be a terrible mistake not to take advantage of your FP+ selections. My biggest advice: don’t let any FP+ selections go to waste! My mom doesn’t go on big rides. Outside of Toy Story Midway Mania, she doesn’t go on any rides at Hollywood Studios. Rather than let her other two FP+ selections go to waste, we book her for Tower of Terror and then exchange bracelets. This is not a dirty tactic – in fact, Disney encourages guest to use all their FP+ selections. A family of 4 has 12 FP+ selections a day. If you have them, use them – and do not let them go to waste.
Not Taking Advantage of Extra Magic Hours
If you’re staying off-site, skip down to the next tip. If you’re on-site, take advantage of the Extra Magic Hours. If you’re from the West Coast, getting to Magic Kingdom for 7am Extra Magic Hours could be tough. If you have a young family, staying out until 2am for evening Extra Magic Hours is not recommended. But – try and take advantage of EMH when you can. My family loves late-night EMH, especially at Magic Kingdom. There’s nothing like Magic Kingdom at 1 or 2am. You can walk 100 yards without seeing anyone. Will there still be lines? Absolutely. But it’s amazing seeing the park packed earlier in the day and nearly empty at 2am. The decreased crowds during EMHs also present a great opportunity to snap some great photos.
Not Taking Breaks
This kind of goes with the “don’t try to see and do everything” tip. Of course you want to pull marathon days at the parks – especially if you’re staying off-site or only visiting for the day. But if you’re staying on-site, take advantage of the fact that you can head back to your resort. My sister is 31 and I’m 26. We still need a break in the afternoon. Between the crowds and all the walking one does at the parks, it’s easy to get tired or overwhelmed. We always leave the parks by 1 or 2pm (when it gets really crowded) and head back to the hotel to hang out by the pool or take a nap. By 5 or 6pm, we head to our dinner reservation and will usually head to a park for evening Extra Magic Hours. That nap – no matter how old you are, works wonders. Remember, even though you’re at Disney, it’s a vacation – you should relax a little.
Not Planning Your Trip
I’ve heard of a lot of people who head to Disney and just play it by ear. Again, to each their own. Personally, I’m a type A and can’t do anything without making to-do lists and planning everything. Not planning out your trip can work during the less-crowded times of the year. If you wanna head to Disney on a whim in September, go for it. Christmas week is not the time to do this. Plan out your days, make your dining reservations and secure your FP+ selections.
Only Going to the Parks
You’re in Disney, so you’ll want to spend a lot of time at the parks. But Disney has added so many new attractions throughout the property that it’s no longer just about the parks. There’s more to do than the parks and certainly more than just hanging by the pool.
If you’re a golfer, try one of Disney’s four golf courses. They have different courses for players of all skill levels and offer club rentals. Having played the Lake Buena Vista Golf Course, I’d totally recommend it!
Looking for a more relaxing day? Head to the spa! Disney has plenty of spas at their larger resorts that offer massages and facials, and salons that offer haircuts, manicures and pedicures.
My family likes to spend a lot of time touring the resorts. The Deluxe resorts feature beautiful Christmas decorations and
displays. The monorail resorts (Contemporary, Polynesian and Grand Floridian) are great places to check out. Take a break from Magic Kingdom and hop aboard the monorail to The Contemporary. The Contemporary has a beautiful gingerbread display on the fourth floor. After The Contemporary, head to the Polynesian. The Polynesian doesn’t feature a gingerbread display, but its towering tree and the recent renovations make it a must-stop. Take time to tour the newer areas of the resort and admire the beautiful tree in the lobby. Last, stop by the Grand Floridian. The lobby is truly awe-inspiring – from the beautiful Christmas tree, to the life-size gingerbread house. The lobby itself is beautiful. It’s elegantly decorated with chandeliers, bird cages, and of course, the open cage elevator. Be sure to look up and see the gorgeous domed skylights. Angle your camera to capture both the Christmas tree and the ceiling and skylights. It makes for an amazing photo!
While in the Magic Kingdom area, check out the Wilderness Lodge and Fort Wilderness. The Wilderness Lodge lobby feels just like a ski lodge with a gigantic fireplace and plenty of rocking chairs and couches. The tree is decorated with a Northwest Native American theme. The lobby has a “homey” and cozy feel to it, making it a great spot to relax. Fort Wilderness is also a great spot and home to the campgrounds. Many campers decorate their site. Some go the traditional route with lights, others step it up with inflatables, homemade decorations and even Christmas villages. I believe you can walk the campground, but I’d recommend reserving a horse drawn carriage ride around the area. It just screams “Christmas!”
After a day at EPCOT or Hollywood Studios, walk over to the Yacht and Beach Club and BoardWalk Villas.The resorts also feature gingerbread displays and Christmas trees decorated according to the resort’s theme.
Last, but certainly not least, is (Downtown) Disney Springs. With so many new stores, restaurants and attractions opening up, Disney Springs is a fantastic spot to spend the day away from the parks. Do some last-minute Christmas shopping, grab a bite to eat, or just spend the day walking the area and checking out the new attractions. BOATHOUSE is a great spot for a drink, or hop aboard an Amphicar for a truly unique experience. Grab a hot chocolate at Ghiradelli, or fill your stocking with candy from Goofy’s Candy Co. It’s been reported that Disney Springs will feature some new decorations and holiday-themed attractions this year, which I’ll report on after my trip in November.
Under or Over Packing
The weather in Disney during December and January is goofy (pun intended.) One day it can be 80 degrees and sunny, and the next it can be 50 degrees and cloudy. The weather changes every day – sometimes during the day! To pack, start by getting your clothes ready. I usually pack for every season. I pack shorts and t-shirts, long-sleeve shirts and pants, sweaters and a jacket, and even gloves and knit hats. Plan to layer. Bring shorts incase it’s hot; Bring jeans and a t-shirt incase it’s cooler outside; If it’s a little chillier, throw on a long-sleeve shirt or hoodie; If it’s cold, bring a winter jacket, gloves and a knit hat. Have your clothes laid out, do a last-minute check a day or two before your trip and then pack.
We underpacked on our first trip. We were freezing as the temperature didn’t go above 60 the entire trip. Last year, I overpacked. It was in the 80s most days and 60s most nights. I had too many hoodies and sweaters and not enough light clothes.
Also – bring sunscreen. It’s easy to forget about the hot sun in the winter, but you are in Florida. Regardless of the temperature, fair-skin people can and will get sunburn.
I Have to Travel During Christmas Week
Due to work or having kids in school, many people can only travel during Christmas. But others have the option of traveling in November or early December. If you can’t deal with the crowds, go during a less-crowded time. Disney puts up decorations in early November. Outside of Food and Wine and Thanksgiving weekend, November is not very crowded. Early December also presents a great opportunity to experience the parks without the crowds. The crowds should pick up around December 20th or 21st and only increase from there. If you can, pick a week other than Christmas week to see the parks with holiday decorations.
Taking Your Trip Too Seriously
I’ll end it with this – don’t take your trip too seriously. Whether you’re staying on-site or off-site, on the meal plan or paying out of pocket, you’re going to sink some serious money into this vacation. It’s easy to expect a perfect trip – but that rarely happens. With the exception of 2009 and part of 2010, the weather is infinitely better than New York. Chances are, it’s better than where you’re from, too. The vacation is a great break from the cold weather before we enter the “dead of winter.” It’s also a break from work, and honestly – Christmas seems to last longer at Disney. It’s not just a 24-hour holiday, it goes all week long!
Don’t worry about the crowds or wait times – just enjoy your vacation. It’s a vacation!