1. Pick one park (and only one park) to take in the full day.
There are four parks that make up Disney World – Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios – and there is absolutely, positively no way you could experience all of these in one day. I mean, if you took the bus to each one and walked in for 10 minutes, maybe…but nobody wants to do that.
On our last trip, we very easily did Epcot in one day (though we could have explored so much more if we hadn’t had a three-year-old with us). Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom each took less than a day, so I’m not sure I’d recommend those for just one day at Disney. I think Magic Kingdom really embodies the magic and experience of Disney the best, so if you just have one day…that would be my recommendation. We spent three days there on our last trip, so you definitely won’t run out of things to do. Plus, most of your experiences (food, shopping, and rides) that are classically Disney will be found in Magic Kingdom.
That being said, if you’re really into experiencing new kinds of food and culture (especially if you’re spending your day there with just adults), you might want to give Epcot a try! I think Epcot is so underrated…there is so much to take in there and learn. Added bonus if you can time your trip during the Flower and Garden Festival (in the spring) or Food and Wine Festival (in the fall)…those just add so many new experiences (including lots of incredible food) to the park.
No matter what you pick, choose just one park and stick to it. Transit times can take awhile and take away valuable park time during your day.
2. Accept that you won’t get everything done.
Especially if you choose Magic Kingdom for your park, go on and accept that there is no way you can do everything in a day. Your life (and trip) will be so much easier if you just pick a few favorites and focus on enjoying them! It was a little bit of a struggle to experience everything Magic Kingdom had to offer in three days when we went a couple of years ago, so I went into this trip knowing that we really needed to just “hit the highlights” with this trip.
3. Start by making a list of 10 things you really, really want to do (including food & shopping).
As soon as we decided on a day for our visit, I started sorting through the attractions we wanted to do this time around. I knew what was kind of overrated for the amount of time you have to spend in line (in my opinion, Peter Pan’s Flight, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, and Jungle Cruise have ridiculous wait times for what they are) and what our favorites are (we love Barnstormer, Enchanted Tales with Belle, and Dumbo). I also went on and wrote off the bigger roller coasters since we have two kids that just wouldn’t be having it (Space Mountain just happened to be closed when we were there, so no loss, but we also wrote off Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad).
Emmie, Noah, and I all picked one thing we absolutely had to do while we were there for our list. I already had our favorite rides on there, so Emmie picked meeting Elena of Avalor (something that wasn’t available last time we visited), Noah wanted to get a turkey leg, and I wanted a Dole Whip. It’s a great idea to include food and shopping in your list of “must dos” while you’re planning…those things are just as much part of the trip as the rides!
Our final “must-do” list included…
-Meet Cinderella/Elena of Avalor
-Get Mickey ears for the kids
-Get a picture in front of the castle
-Enchanted Tales with Belle
-Get our Christmas ornament
-Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin
4. Make a “back-up” list of things that you might like to do.
After you make a list of 10 “must-do” things (which should be pretty easy to get done in one day with a little planning, as long as the park is not insanely busy that day), I recommend making a list of 10 “back-up” things to do. Make sure everybody in your party knows that these are back-ups so nobody gets upset if you can’t get to them.
I usually try to put things with not much of a wait on this list…it makes it easier to get them in when you have 20-30 minutes to kill.
Our back-up list included…
-Columbia Harbour House
-it’s a small world
-Teacups (Mad Tea Party)
-Prince Charming Carousel
-Fireworks (I put this here in case the kids melted down before it was time…they’re late!)
-The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
-Journey of the Little Mermaid
-Magic Carpets of Aladdin
5. Book your Fastpasses.
Now that you know what you really want to do, it’s time to book Fastpasses! These will make your trip so much easier to plan and will knock valuable wait time off of your trip.
Chances are, if you’re only going to Disney for a day, you aren’t staying on-site for this trip. If that’s the case, the earliest you can book Fastpasses is 30 days out from your trip. I really recommend getting these booked as soon as possible…no, you probably won’t get a lot of the hard-to-get Fastpasses for your day, but you can still score some pretty good ones at this point! I was able to get Fastpasses for Enchanted Tales with Belle, meeting Cinderella/Elena, and Barnstormer for our one-day trip.
6. Organize by sections.
I use whatever Fastpasses I get to kind of shape our day. After I get my Fastpasses, I look at a map and kind of plan out where we will be at certain times of the day to group together the items geographically on our list. For example, our Barnstormer Fastpass was in the early afternoon, so I made sure to pencil in Dumbo around that same time since they are right next to each other. I also made sure to put the People Mover and Buzz Lightyear close together during a time when we didn’t have a Fastpass so I could knock out that section of the park at the same time. That way, you’re not walking all over the park for no reason!
Besides the Fastpass times, I don’t have a set schedule of times when I make this list (because you just never know how long each ride is going to take). Simply having a list of the things you need to accomplish in each section of the park (Frontierland, Fantasyland, Adventureland, Main Street USA, Liberty Square, Mickey’s Toontown Fair and Tomorrowland) works without being too rigid.
7. Go for quick service (or pack your own) to eat.
If you know about your day at Disney far enough in advance, you have the same opportunity to book ADRs (Advance Dining Reservations) as any other guest. All guests get to book ADRs starting at 180 before the dining experience. However, if you’re like us, you didn’t start planning a day trip to Disney 6 months in advance, so most of those really good dining reservations are going to be gone.
You can still absolutely have a great dining experience by just using the quick service restaurants at the park! They take much less time than the Table Service experiences and can still give you that little bit of magic of Disney. We love Columbia Harbour House, Pinocchio Village Haus, and Gaston’s Tavern (great for breakfast!).
I’m also obviously a big fan of the snacks at Disney. Many of them can be made into meals! As a matter of fact, Noah had a turkey leg for dinner that evening. The Dole Float at Aloha Isle, Waffles at Sleepy Hollow, and Sundaes at Plaza Ice Cream Parlor on Main Street are to die for.
8. Take small breaks, but cut the long ones.
With kids, it is incredibly important to put lots of breaks in your day at Disney. If you go any other month than like January and February, it’s going to be really hot and humid. Kids get tired in that weather…fast. Yes, it takes a little bit of time out of your day, but a little bit of a recharge will make the rest of your trip so much better.
There are several places in the park we love for taking breaks. This trip, we discovered the Baby Care Center in Magic Kingdom…and it might just be my favorite place in the park. (Kidding. Kind of.) This is a whole section of the building next to Crystal Palace towards the front of the park that has just about everything you could need to care for a baby. There is a room filled with diapers and changing supplies if needed and (my favorite part) there’s also a dark, cold room filled with big comfy recliners just for nursing moms.
I kind of fell in love with that room.
Jackson and I stopped by there several times when he was getting cranky so he could nurse. I didn’t take a picture for obvious reasons, but it’s the perfect place to rest with your baby (and even let them take a quick nap) if needed. (I cannot confirm nor deny that I closed my eyes for a few minutes too.)
We also love the play area in the Dumbo ride. It’s inside, so if you’re hot it’s a great place to hide from the heat and let your kids play for a few minutes while you sit. There’s a small play area in the middle that’s great for kids Jackson’s age and a larger climbing area that Emmie loves. It’s a wait area while you’re waiting to go on the Dumbo ride, but you’re welcome to go by just to play and rest without actually riding Dumbo if needed!
The parades are also a great chance to sit for a little while and rest. The Festival of Fantasy parade is at 3:00 most days, so it’s a perfect afternoon break to have a snack while you watch the characters (many of whom might not be possible to see otherwise with just one day in the park).
Now, while I recommend taking little breaks throughout the day, I wouldn’t try to schedule a long nap time that requires you to leave the park if you only have a day to experience everything. By the time you leave, get to your car, travel to your hotel, nap, and get back, you’re going to cut several hours out of your day. If you have a stroller napper (which we don’t), take advantage of it! If not, and you can absolutely help skipping nap time one day, do it.
9. Save yourself time and money by coming prepared.
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There really isn’t a ton you need to bring to Disney if you’re only going to be there for a day, but it’s smart to come prepared for a few things that will make your trip so much easier.
I’ve recommended this before and I’ll recommend it again…the #1 thing you should have is an external battery pack for your phone. I love the using the My Disney Experience app for planning and my phone camera for pictures in the parks, but they both drain your battery so fast. We had this battery pack last time we were there, but many of your know Noah had an incident where we lost it a few weeks ago…so we bought this one as a replacement. It honestly wasn’t as good, but it’s somewhat less expensive, so it just kind of depends on how much you’d like to spend.
I didn’t recommend bringing a big, nice camera last time because we had Photopass (i.e. access to the pictures that Disney cast members take throughout the park)…but, I doubt you want to spend $169 on photos for just one day, so I would recommend bringing a nicer camera if you’re just going to be there for a day. I really just used this for meeting characters and getting our picture in front of the castle, but I’m glad a had it for those special pictures!
10. Don’t forget to stop and soak it in.
When Jackson and I were walking back to meet everyone else at one point, I just stopped with him in front of the castle to experience it for a few minutes. He had really just learned to walk that week, so I let him hold onto the rails and take everything in. It was probably my absolute favorite moment of the day.
Whether it’s a day trip or not, it could be your child’s first/only memory of Disney ever. That’s magical, no matter how long you’re going to be there! This was Jackson’s first trip ever…we’ll probably go back in a few years, but I can’t ever get back the memory of him seeing the castle for the first time or spotting Mickey in the parade (I totally teared up a little).
And Emmie getting to play the Beast in Enchanted Tales with Belle, like she’s talked about for 2 years? You can’t recreate that…ever. She won’t be this little next time we go…it will still be magical no matter what age they are, but man, something about this age with them was just special. Don’t ever forget how that feels.
Most importantly, don’t let anyone tell you that Disney in a day isn’t possible…it totally is! No, you won’t be able to experience every single thing, but it’s fun to get a taste of the magic every once in awhile too. Noah and I both agreed that we would go back for a full trip in a few years, but that this little bit was perfect for our kids’ ages right now.
Happy planning, friends!
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