Whether you're a lifelong local or a first-time tourist, at some point everyone in Orlando enters Mickey's magical mousetrap. The key to emerging alive is to go in with an attack plan, a realistic budget and (our preference) a hidden flask.
1. GET YOUR TICKETS IN ADVANCE
The best-case scenario is to make friends with a Disney employee (or "cast member," in Mickey-speak) who can get you in for free. Otherwise, look into legit brokers like Official Ticket Center (officialticketcenter.com) and Undercover Tourist (undercovertourist.com), or Florida resident specials direct from Disney; MouseSavers.com always has the latest intel on discounts. Whatever you do, don't buy partially used passes online, or pay the $105 gate price for a day at the Magic Kingdom. If nothing else, buying early not only saves you time, it allows you to ...
2. PREBOOK YOUR FASTPASS+ RESERVATIONS
Once you've got your park ticket, you can register it with a MyMagic+ account through Disney's My Magical Experience website (disneyworld.disney.go.com/plan/my-disney-experience) or free mobile app. Up to 30 days in advance of your visit (60 if you're staying at a Disney hotel), you can book advance FastPass+ reservation for three attractions in a single park. You can only get additional passes on the day of after you've used the first three, so pick carefully. Best uses for your FastPass+ are:
Magic Kingdom: Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Peter Pan's Flight, the Frozen princess meet-and-greet
Epcot: Soarin', Mission: Space, Spaceship Earth
Hollywood Studios: Toy Story Midway Mania, Star Tours, Tower of Terror
Animal Kingdom: Kilimanjaro Safaris, Kali River Rapids, Expedition Everest
3. PARK CREATIVELY
Most guests bite the bullet and pay to park in Disney's expansive surface lots. Another option is to park and eat at the Contemporary Resort (Chef Mickey's character meal is insanely popular, California Grill is overrated and the Wave is often overlooked), then walk into the Magic Kingdom. You can do the same with the BoardWalk Inn for Epcot and Hollywood Studios, but there's no good alternative at Animal Kingdom. On busy days you may need a reservation to pull this off. Whatever you do, don't try parking at Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney) and busing to the parks until the current construction apocalypse there concludes.
4. ADR OR DIE(T)
Speaking of Advance Dining Reservations (or "ADRs"), if you want a sit-down meal inside a Disney park, you need to plan up to 180 days ahead. Popular restaurants like Be Our Guest and Le Cellier book solid months in advance. Alternatively, throw caution (and cholesterol) to the wind and subsist on quick-service heart-cloggers like smoked turkey legs and pork shanks. The best park for street snacking is Epcot, especially on weekdays during the Food & Wine or Flower & Garden festivals.
5. PRIORITIZE YOUR RIDES
Don't be the people you see blocking up park pathways, squinting at the map and arguing over where to go next. Use a professionally designed attraction itinerary (like the ones provided by TouringPlans.com) or at least familiarize yourself with what the rides are about via YouTube. Arrive before the park officially opens, and immediately hit the most popular rides that you didn't book FastPass+ appointments for. You can do more in the park's first hour of operations than in the next three, provided you stay ahead of the crowds.
6. STAY OFF THE (MAIN) STREET
Disney recently renovated Magic Kingdom's iconic Main Street hub to provide more parade and fireworks viewing areas, but it will cost you a valuable FastPass+ to use them. Instead, watch the parades from the waterfront path in Frontierland, from which you can escape afterward toward Splash Mountain or the Haunted Mansion. Fantasyland and Tomorrowland offer great views of the fireworks with plenty of elbow room, though you'll miss the projection-mapping pre-show on the castle. Better yet, watch from the beach at the newly refurbished Polynesian Village Resort with a rum drink or Dole Whip.