It’s been 17 years since my last trip to Disney World.
How much could have changed?
The parks are still fantastic. But the days of hopping aimlessly from ride to ride are gone. Now, a successful trip — defined here as minimizing time spent standing in lines — involves more walking, adopting Disney’s tech and carrying a mobile phone with an impressive battery life.
Genie+ is a must
The internet is filled with strategies to avoid lines at Disney. But if you’re an infrequent visitor, traveling with young kids or uninterested in diving into the world of Disney blogs, buying access to shorter lines is your best bet.
Download the My Disney Experience app and put it front and center on your phone’s home screen. It’s key to the first principle of live avoidance at Disney World: purchasing Genie+, a service that allows visitors to book “Lightning Lanes,” which provide one-time access to shorter lines for most attractions.
The service starts at $15 per day per person, according to Disney’s website. But it averaged around $24 a day during my trip over the Memorial Day weekend in May.
Is this too pricey? It depends on your budget. But I estimate the service saved us at least four hours in line per day, making it a steal in my opinion.
Extra cost: About $145 daily for a family of six.
Designate a point person
After purchasing Genie+, you can start reserving spaces on attractions for your group — a process which begins promptly at 7 a.m. Starting any time after this, even by a few minutes, can delay booking windows by hours.
I served as the booking point person for my family, a necessary but thankless job. Duties include weighing attraction waiting times, ride popularity and proximity to your current location to determine the best and highest use of your next Lightning Lane — which can be used only one at a time, or every two hours.
Disney estimates visitors can use Lightning Lanes to enter two to three attractions per day, but on many days we booked five times that amount.
This means the point person has the privilege of explaining to the family why they’re walking past favorites — “Aladdin” and “Peter Pan” for the kids, “The Hall of Presidents” for the husband — to take advantage of a rare parting in crowds on the other side of the park.
This strategy saves time in line, but results in more walking — some days we averaged 25,000 steps. But I’ll take walking over standing in place any day.
Tip: As soon as you check into a Lightning Lane, book the next one. You don’t need to wait until the ride is completed.
Forget virtual queues
This may be controversial advice, but to save time and simplify scheduling, consider skipping “virtual queues.”
Currently, only two attractions in all four theme parks use them: Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind and Tron Lightcycle/Run.
There is no standby, or standard, line for these rides. So many visitors vie for spots in the virtual queue, which are free. Bookings open twice daily — and are often gone within seconds.
We tried and failed to get slots on Tron at 7 a.m. on the first day of our trip, using one phone. At 1 p.m., we tried again using three phones — one was successful. The booking, which we monitored throughout the afternoon, was eventually called around 7 p.m. By that time, the kids were fatigued, and the line was the longest one of the entire day.
Spoiled by Lightning Lanes, we ditched virtual queues for the rest of the trip, opting to buy Individual Lightning Lanes for these two rides, plus four others where the service is available. These are one-time purchases to access shorter lines.
By no means is this the cheapest way to go, but this strategy allowed us to select set ride times, freed up time spent monitoring my phone, and is easier to book than virtual queues (especially for guests staying in a Disney-affiliated hotel).
Extra cost: It varies, but about $12 to $20 per attraction.
Consider a private tour
If paying for these services doesn’t sit well, compare them with the cost to book a private VIP tour. Tours range from $450 to $900 per hour, depending on the season, and have a seven-hour minimum. Note: this price does not include park tickets.
“For those with the budget to do it, it is the greatest thing,” said Jonathan Alder, CEO of the travel agency Jonathan’s Travels. Tours usher visitors between parks and grant access to private entrances and shorter lines, he said.
“I’d say two parks in a massive day with 13 miles of walking on average is what you end up getting without a guide,” he said. But with one: “I’ve done all major rides at all four parks and only had about 10 miles of walking.”
Extra cost: From $3,150, but rates can easily be double this.
Go ‘standby’ sparingly
During my family’s five-day trip to Disney, we saw nearly every attraction in the four parks. But we only waited in five standby lines, the longest of which was roughly 30 minutes long.
We entered these lines while we were between Lightning Lanes or wanted to ride the same ride twice (Lightning Lanes can only be used once per day). But we waited for opportune moments — when the parks opened in the morning or during nightly firework displays — to do so.
Staying in a Disney Resort — there are more than 25 in total — gives visitors a 30-minute head start in the mornings (and occasional extended evening hours as well). This may not seem like much, but it allowed us to quickly tackle at least one major attraction a day without battling big crowds.
Buy the bands
MagicBands are part of the ever-growing list of formerly free items that are now chargeable at Disney World. But if you value convenience over cost, buying one is the way to go.
In many instances, I watched people with MagicBands sail past visitors who were searching for the right screen on their mobile phones to enter Lightning Lanes.
They also save time when you’re buying food and merchandise. Plus, they double as a souvenir that the kids can wear long after leaving the parks.
Disclosure: NBCUniversal owns CNBC and Universal Studios, which is a competitor of Disney World.