Linda and I have been to Disney World in Florida many times, friends and family often ask us for tips and advice so we sat down and wrote this page. It's probably not as comprehensive as many guides you'd find online, but we hope its useful. You may also be interested in Anthony's page on the Highest Score Possible on Disneys Fast Track.
It may be worth exploring the option of flying into another airport like Tampa, especially if you're going to be getting a rental car anyway. We've found that it saves a fair bit of money over flying into Orlando. The drive is about an hour without traffic - be mindful of rush-hour traffic when looking at flight arrival/departure times.
We usually stay in a Disney resort, although more expensive parking isn't free either and we find the immersive experience more relaxing. Disney does a pretty good job of shutting out the outside world, although cell phones have changed that somewhat. We like to get a suite that includes a small kitchenette so we can have breakfast/brunch in the room, and have found that the resort prices for things like milk aren't as high as one might think - but we still try to stock-up on groceries before getting to Disney World.
Disney has what they call 'magic hours' where a given park is open an hour early or an hour late each day for people staying at Disney hotels. If you have to pick what days you'll be in each park ahead of time try to check out the Magic Hours Schedule and remember that Epcot and Magic Kingdom are the most popular so may be better weekdays while Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom will be less busy on weekends. Alternately the park-hopper ticket option allows you to go between parks, something we really enjoy but which might be expensive for many people over many days.
All of the hotels have pools and such so if the weather is nice you can hang out or ditch the kids there if they're older, esp once you've been there a few days and are theme-parked out. Speaking of which, Walt Disney World is a big place and you should avoid the temptation to cram too many things in your schedule each day.
It's a lot of walking - wear good shoes/socks that you've broken in first, sore feet suck. Remember that it could be cool in the evening many times of the year. It's also good each morning for everyone in your family to take a moment and look around to see what each other is wearing in case there are crowds to get lost in... of course if it rains you'll be among a sea of other people wearing yellow Mickey ponchos so it's sometimes a moot point.
They don't check your park tickets until you actually go in the parks so you can go on the monorail, buses, and boats to other hotel/resorts and parks. There are buses to take you from hotel to parks, but you can also take the buses between hotels by riding to any park and then waiting at that bus stop for a bus to the other hotel. For example if you wanted to eat at the fancy restaurant in the Polynesian resort or wanted to look around the Fort Wilderness resort (in case you forget what pine trees look like). Also note that the monorail system can be taken between some parks and hotels, it stops at a structure called the Ticket and Transportation building where you may have to switch trains or boats. When you are at Epcot remember the "International Gateway Entrance" between England and France, right outside is the Beach Club Resort and it's sometimes easier to catch buses there than walking all the way out the "front" of Epcot.
Eating at the hotel will generally be somewhat cheaper than in the parks, esp for mid-day meals and evening. As mentioned above, many experienced visitors with younger children will go back to the hotels mid-day to take a break for naps or downtime in the pools to avoid late-night child (or adult!) meltdowns.
Speaking of eating the Disney phone app allows you to make reservations at any restaurant in any park or hotel if you want to avoid waits for popular places in the busier evenings. Note that the most popular times/places are usually booked far in advance, but with flexibility (park-hopper) and patience we've never had trouble finding places to eat. They're almost all casual dress affairs and you'll want to make the most out of your dinning package on days when you seem to have extra time.
Those who know us will not be shocked to hear that Linda and I rarely get an early start, and often eat a light breakfast/brunch in our room and then eat a late lunch. Many people who like to get an early start also have a nice sit-down and relax noon-day meal - either at a park or in one of the hotel restaurants. Crowds and lines are also best in the mornings and lunch meals are usually cheaper than evening meals.
Generally speaking we've found the counter service restaurants to be kind of expensive for what you get, remember that there are no free drink refills in the Magic Kingdom - but there are in other places. We've made park-specific notes below.
The traditional strategy for limiting long lines is to get a fast pass for the most popular ride or ride with the longest wait times in the park and then head to a 'secondary' attraction or perhaps another popular ride for wait times. If you are (or can be) an early-morning person be aware that they let people into the parks before the official start time so you can be reasonably close to the most popular rides at the moment of official park opening, then can head to less-popular rides while everyone else is waiting in line, and then use fast-passes for your second and third choice rides later in the day. If you do go early be sure to arrive early enough - only being in the parking lot at park opening time won't gain you much for the most popular rides. If you aren't staying on Disney property you'll also want to make sure the park in question doesn't have early-morning Magic Hours, in which showing up early won't do you any good.
You'll have a window of time to use the fast pass; people tend to show up at the beginning of the time window so we've found that the fast pass line will be even shorter if you show up toward the end of the time-window. I can imagine that they may stagger people's windows more in the future to even out that effect. Note that fast passes that have been canceled because of weather or a ride breaking down will be honored later in the day or at other rides of your choosing. Also note that some rides like Test Track have a single-rider line that can be as fast as a fastpass - if you don't mind your party getting broken up into separate cars.
If you have any warm days be sure to try the Dole whip pineapple ice cream near Aladdin's Ride. For counter-service dining we like the Columbia Harbor House by the Haunted Mansion - you can take your food upstairs for a quieter atmosphere, esp if you can get a window seat. For pricier sit-down options the Crystal Palace and Liberty Tree Tavern are good places to eat. If you want to take a break mid-day and don't want to go back to your hotel you may consider eating at one of the resorts around the bay next to Magic Kingdom, you can get to them via the monorail. We'd recommend Captain Cooks at the Polynesian resort, at least in part because you can get Dole Pineapple Whip ice cream at Pine Apple Lanai just outside.
For family photos Pete's Silly Sideshow in the North East corner is usually good and often doesn't have bad lines because it's kind of out-of-the-way.
The fireworks at night are good, the crowds between the castle and Main Street are often large but that's the best viewing area, otherwise in front of Mickys Philharmagic is an OK place and is rarely as crowded. They can also be seen (at a distance) from the ticket and transportation building if you want to see them on a day that you aren't doing anything else in the evening (Animal Kingdom day), and you can access that location even if you don't have the Park Hopper option and you don't have Magic Kingdom tickets that day. If you can time getting on one of the paddle boats that go back and forth between the ticket and transportation building and the Magic Kingdom they're neat to see over the water. There aren't many people going to the MK in the evening so you'd be able to get right on the boats going there (they'll be full on the way back, but that's another story.)
Linda and I also like Spaceship earth (in the big dome) and Living with the Land. The space and energy buildings are easy to forget, they're tucked over to the left of Test Track - Ellen's energy adventure is closed now and being changed to a Guardians of the Galaxy ride. The Mission to Mars ride isn't as bad as I remember, it just uses spinning to simulate acceleration - I think the warnings are more scary than the ride, but I know other people who have felt nauseous for some time afterward. The Mexican pavilion's old-style boat ride is OK, and they have a children's craft area that is fun for children. Sum of all Thrills in Innovations is another neat activity that is easily forgotten, and makes for fun filler when waiting for rain to pass.
Of course Disney has a hard job balancing people's nostalgia with the pressure to keep things fresh... but unless you're a huge Michelle Jackson fan Captain Eo sucks, so does Imagination - in fact the only good thing about that building is the backwards waterfall out front.
The restaurants in The Land building are good, the cafe service one downstairs and the fancy circular one upstairs - depending on how much time and money you're willing to spend. Linda likes the "family-style" buffet at Garden Grill, but Anthony prefers the traditional buffets of places like the German pavilion restaurant, Hollywood and Vine in Hollywood Studios, and Tusker House in Animal Kingdom. As you'd imagine the dining at the French section is great, and if you're in the mood for new flavors the Moroccan restaurants will probably be a nice change of pace. The free soda from around the world at Club Cool is a classic, it's near the far end of the main water fountain on the right as your walking in. Be sure to try the (not so) excellent Beverly soda from Italy.
Epcot is generally a pretty good park to be in on rainy days, at least the front (non-world-showcase) portion of the park. Having said that, Test Track often closes any time the weather is threatening (note that you'll be able to use your fast passes later in the day if it closes.) On a rainy or hot afternoon instead of standing in 2 hour lines for Test Track it's nice to watch the fish and dolphins while relaxing at The Seas, and Turtle Talk with Crush is cute.
There are a number of quiet corners in Epcot: on the Future World East (Test Track) side there are two unused buildings next to Mission Space (the former Body Worlds and Energy Adventure rides) - it's usually quiet next to them. Additionally in the World Showcase has several areas that aren't as crowded as the ride-areas in the "front" of the park - our favorites are the paths on the left hand side of the Japan pavilion and the tables on the right-side of the French pavilion, and the water features in the Canadian section.
There are also often decent live bands in the back of the UK section. On a quiet evening you can ditch the kids and have a romantic walk around the main lake in Epcot, there's also a back-entrance to Epcot near the UK section - it leads to another lake that has the Boardwalk, Beach Club and Yacht resorts. It's usually quiet and nice with a few small sand beaches. The lake at the Caribbean beach resort is nice to walk around too.
The fireworks at Epcot are called Illuminations and they are Linda's favorite, you can get fast passes for better seating during the show - but we've found simply finding a decent view of the lagoon is sufficient.
In terms of rides the Yeti Everest roller coaster is good, as are the Festival of the Lion King and Nemo Musicals. Both rides in the new Avatar World are good, the Flights of Passage ride is similar to Sorin and usually has long lines so that's a place to go early-morning or use a fast pass on. Other activities in the park are good also - Flights of Wonder is one of the better bird shows we've seen, and the animal safari can be good during cool days when the lines aren't long and the drivers can slow down where animals are out and visible.
I don't know that we've got many favorite eating places there, but the Satu'li Canteen in Avatar Land is good - as is the Tusker House Restaurant - although Linda thinks it's a little pricy for what you get. An alternative is Jiko at the nearby Animal Kingdom Lodge, with good food and occasional animal views - you can take a bus to the Animal Kingdom Lodges from the park entrance.
This is definitely not a good park on days that rain, indoor cover is limited and their water management scheme seems to involve channeling it all through the walkways.
The Aerosmith roller coaster is the upper-limit of my roller coaster tolerance, I like it but its probably a mid-level of intensity for people who really enjoy such things. Universal Studios and Busch Gardens have bigger roller coasters if that's your cup of tea. The tower of terror is pretty fun too - although it's really just a themed version of jerk-ya-up-and-down rides anyplace. The lines at Disney Toy Story Mania and Aerosmith coaster are always crazy so those are places to use a fast pass.
The SiFi drive in is a classic place to eat, although the food isn't special. Hollywood and Vine's all you can eat buffet and character dining is pricey but good. The Backlot express counter service restaurant is one of the better counter-service places in Disney World. On the flip side Pizza Rizo (formally Pizza Planet) is one of our least favorite counter-service places.
Fantasmic is the nighttime show, but I don't recall being as impressed as I was with Epcot/Magic Kingdom fireworks... it might be better if you get there early and get really good seats. The Star Wars fireworks show has been updated and now includes a fair bit of video projected in the central courtyard so that's a good place to view that show, if you don't want to deal with the crowds or are running late the fireworks can be seen fine from the lake area by Greta the Dinosaur. Fantasmic and the Star Wars show often overlap so you won't be able to see both on the same night.
Last Updated 2/19/2018 - anthony - firstname.lastname@example.org