Disney World Tips to Put Magic Into Your Off Property Disney Vacation

Mary Dixon Lebeau Avatar

disney world tips
Travel by monorail or boat to your favorite Disney park. Photo credit: Pixabay


Just say the words “Disney vacation” and watch your kids’ eyes light up. There’s pixie dust and wonder at the very thought of a visit to the Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, EPCOT and Animal Kingdom. And let’s face it – you can’t put a price tag on that kind of magic.

But a magical Disney World trip doesn’t necessarily mean staying at a Disney hotel. I have been lucky enough to have stayed at several on-property Disney World resorts as well as off property Disney hotels. As the mother of five, I can say that many of our most magical Disney vacations were those when we stayed off property. It took a little planning on our part, but the off-property experience allowed us more space, more relaxation and more money in the budget.

Staying “on property” at a Disney Resort comes at a premium. You’re often paying more money for less space than you do if you stay at an off-property resort hotel. Since we spend most of our vacation time in the Disney parks, it doesn’t make sense for us to invest our vacation dollars in a room that we are in mostly to sleep.

Read More: Our favorite off property Disney World hotels

Here’s how to sprinkle extra pixie dust on your own Florida trip.

Buy a Disney-Themed Calendar

I’ve always found that counting down the days to our Disney vacation builds my kids’ anticipation – and it’s a great way to keep me on track for those important dates I need to remember long before I pack my bags. Consider making this easy DIY Disney countdown calendar.

Mark the Calendar for 30 and 180 Days

Put a Disney character sticker on the calendar 30 and 180 days before your first day at Walt Disney World. These are the days when you can make your Disney dining (180 days) and Fastpass (30 days) reservations. (More on that later.) Those dates are ESSENTIAL to making the most of an off-property vacation.

SheBuysTravel Tip: If you need something more visual, you can make a countdown chain, with a link to remove every day until you leave for Orlando. When you create the chain, make all the links red except for the 30th and 180th days, which should be yellow. Inside these links, write a note to remind yourself to make reservations. Little ones find the chain growing ever smaller extremely magical.

Can Rex and Jessie be counting the days until your arrival? Photo credit: Mary Dixon Lebeau

Bring the Grandparents

An affordable room on Disney property didn’t allow us to invite the grandparents along, but staying in a three-bedroom villa certainly did. And you know what’s really magical? Seeing your parents’ smiles when their granddaughter encounters Cinderella for the first time.

Disney world tips
Extra space in our villa allowed us to bring Pepe and Meme with us! Note my father-in-law’s Celebration Pin – 50 years! Photo credit: Scott Lebeau

Plan a Surprise

The best Disney World tip for making magic is to do it before you leave home. Sprinkle pixie dust on every part of your trip. We’ve found simple surprises go a long way, so we head to the dollar store or check Amazon to buy Disney gift bags, which we fill with autograph books, water bottles, pens, pins, ponchos and other memorabilia. Leave these by the kids’ beds in the hotel, so they wake up to a magical surprise.

Decorate Disney Style

We decorate the door at the resort with Disney characters (ask permission first). We buy glow bracelets and necklaces for parade time and even decorate our stroller Disney style. All of these set the stage for an immersive Disney experience, no matter where you stay.

Reserve Some Magical Meals

Usually, staying off property will save money, allowing you to spend more freely in other areas. This cash flow increases when you can eat at your resort, either dining at a hotel restaurant or cooking for your family in a suite or villa complete with kitchen. We usually eat our breakfast before heading to the Disney parks. It’s a healthier, cheaper and even quicker option than the quick service dining in the park.

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But when we decided to start staying off property, one of my husband’s biggest concerns was losing the Disney dining plan. He loved eating in EPCOT’s World Showcase and didn’t think our trip would be complete without a character meal (especially one in Cinderella Castle).

So we noted the 180 day window for dining reservations; it’s the same whether you’re on or off property. At 180 days out, we reserved meals at a few strategic restaurants (for us, one breakfast at Cinderella’s Royal Table, one lunch at Be Our Guest, and one dinner at Les Chefs de France). Gone were the days of eating every meal in a Disney park – but the truth is, we didn’t miss them. Eating meals at the hotel allowed us to choose exactly what we wanted – and increased our “ride time” in the park.

Want to add magic to your hotel room dinner? Use something Disney–themed (like our Mouseketeer ears!) as a centerpiece. For even more magic, order a package of Mickey ice cream bars from the local grocery chain. They’re cheaper than in the park and every bit as good.

SheBuysTravel Disney World Tip: Book your one Disney park breakfast for before the park opens, to minimize wait times, maximize ride time and get those pictures on Main Street before the crowds descend. It’s the secret to early entry into the parks.

Memorize these Disney World Tips: Tickets, Fastpasses and MagicBands

When we stay off property, we always make sure we buy our park tickets as far in advance as possible. That way we can sign up for the My Disney Experience app, where we can coordinate our dining reservations, Fastpasses and other experiences. Thirty days before our first park day, we can book our FastPasses for that day.

In fact, you must register your tickets in the app before you can book any Fastpasses, so buy your tickets before your 30 day Disney Fastpass+ window opens. Park tickets can be purchased through Walt Disney World, in a Disney store or online through various ticket vendors.

FastPasses for the most popular rides go quickly, so make sure to mark your countdown calendar! Photo credit: Photopass.

SheBuysTravel Disney World Tip: People staying in Disney resort hotels had a 30 day head start, so some popular rides, like Seven Dwarfs Mine Train roller coaster, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, or Avatar, may already be totally booked. Go ahead and book your second or third choices. Then check on a regular basis to see if any of your favorites open up and swap out. I once snagged a FastPass for Toy Story Mania while sitting in the Hollywood Studios parking lot. Magical!

Don’t Forget to Buy Your MagicBands!

Of course, when you buy tickets and you’re staying off property, you get paper tickets – not those cool MagicBands that everyone sports in the parks. MagicBands are sent automatically to those who stay on property, but that doesn’t mean you have to be left out of that pixie dust. Buy MagicBands in advance at the Disney Store or through the Shop Disney Parks App. Purchasing MagicBands in advance adds a bit of magic to the days leading up to your Disney trip. It also allows you to link them to your My Disney Experience account and your tickets, so you’ll be ready to go once you hit the parks.

Make Arrival Day Magical By Visiting Disney Springs

Since we usually travel by car, we don’t go to a park on arrival day. Why waste a ticket if we’re not there for rope drop, right? But we do infuse that first day with some Disney magic, which sets the tone for the rest of the trip.

Before or after we check into our off-property resort (depending on check-in time), we head to Disney Springs. If you haven’t already, you can purchase MagicBands there and link them to your My Disney Experience account.

We also make sure to get our Celebration buttons here (to commemorate almost anything – like a first time visit, family reunion, birthday or anniversary) so we don’t waste valuable ride time getting them in the park the next day. These are great attention-grabbers; cast members will comment on them and add a special sparkle to your day.

Disney world tips include bringing autograph books for character meetings
Magic abounds during a Disney vacation – wherever you make your home base. Photo credit: Mary Dixon Lebeau

While at Disney Springs, we trade pins, check out the Disney entertainment, and pick up pamphlets to help us plan the upcoming days. The kids have made a tradition of playing with the LEGOs, getting pictures in certain spots and running through the Magical Water Fountain. Then we head back to our resort, properly pixie dusted and looking forward to a magical vacation.

End the Day with Fireworks

Another first day tradition for us – but it can work any time – is to watch fireworks from outside the park. Just plan a visit to one of the Disney resorts along the monorail – the Grand Floridian, the Polynesian or the Contemporary – to see the nightly Magic Kingdom fireworks display. Our favorite spot is the beach at the Polynesian, where we can buy a Dole Whip at the Pineapple Lanai to enjoy during the show. Other favorite spots include the boat dock at the Grand Floridian, where you can also catch the Electrical Water Pageant, and the launching pad for the boats back to the resorts.

If you prefer the EPCOT fireworks, you can catch them while standing on the Boardwalk, another great place to soak in Disney magic without staying on property.

Grab a Dole Whip at the Pineapple Lanai and watch the fireworks before returning to your resort hotel off-property. Photo credit: Scott Lebeau

Use Extra Magic Hours to Your Advantage

One perk of staying on property is the extra magic hours. You won’t get these at most off-property resorts, but we’ve learned to use those hours to our advantage when we’re staying off property. While at Disney Springs, we pick up the brochures that detail the park hours and extra magic hours at each park. Then, when we see the morning extra magic hours are at EPCOT, we plan to be at Disney’s Hollywood Studios that day. Or vice versa. We’ve found that those staying on-property gravitate towards the park offering those hours, so being at a different park at rope drop seriously cuts down on our wait time for popular rides.

Another Disney World tip – take a break midday. Head back to your resort and enjoy its amenities, or just relax and put your feet up. Then you’ll be rested for round two! If you have park hoppers, use them to your advantage and hop to a park that doesn’t offer extra magic hours that night. Most popular rides become walk-ons as others watch parades or just leave exhausted. If you get tired, head to a sit-down attraction, like Frozen Ever After or Mickey’s Philharmonic, to recharge for end of the night fun.

Splash It Up

Sure, staying on property gives you access to your resort’s swimming pools, like the awesome pirate ship and lazy river at the Beach Club. But off-property resorts have equally impressive pools and even water parks. Check out the amenities at your hotel, then enjoy a mid-day pool break.

SheBuysTravel Disney World Tip: If you need a full Disney water parks experience, add the Water Park option to your park hopper ticket. But we’ve found off-property resort pools to be just as fun – and a lot less crowded – than those on property.

Know Your Transportation Options

Staying off property means not having access to some of the Disney transportation options. But we’ve found this to be to our advantage. Actually getting into a car and driving back to a luxurious resort at the end of a long day in the theme parks seems absolutely magical – especially when I spy the long lines of tired visitors and whiny kids waiting for a Disney bus back to their lodging.

Travel by monorail or boat to your favorite Disney park. Photo credit: Pixabay.

Of course, much of the Disney transportation is still open to people who stay off property. We use the monorail to park hop, or take a ferry to check out the BoardWalk area. Lyft and Uber have come through for us – and quickly – when we didn’t have our own car with us.

Want to add some magic to your rides? Blast a Disney playlist while driving to and from the parks, and sing along with the kids. (Of course, if you’re riding with others, let the kids listen on headphones!)

So Where Should You Stay For Your Off Property Disney Vacation?

Orlando has a plethora of choices when it comes to resort hotels. The hardest thing may be choosing the best one for your family! Here are a couple that receive the SheBuysTravel stamp of approval – with special perks and a magic all their own:

The Marriott International Grande Vista

The Marriott International Grande Vista is a tropical paradise and one of my favorite places to stay in the Orlando area. Here’s why – my family is all about the Disney theme parks, but I also want some good old rest and relaxation. It is my vacation, after all!  The Grande Vista is a premium vacation ownership resort, but “leisure” visitors (non-members) can book a room (subject to availability). My husband’s eyes lit up at “golf villas” – and this well-manicured nine-hole course was perfect for our “down day.” The kids traveled between four swimming pools. I ducked into the spa for a foot bath (the perfect respite after three straight days of rope drops, park hopping and long lines!).

Marriott's Grande Vista is a favorite home base while visiting Disney.
Marriott International Grande Vista is a favorite home base while visiting Disney. Photo credit: Marriott International

And here’s a great Disney World tip: after a day at the Disney parks, the Grande Vista’s fire pit area is a fabulous place to relax, rewind, and recall the highlights of the day – from Toy Story Mania to Flight of Passage. In addition, if you still have little ones whose energy levels exceed your own, they can burn it off at the MAZE indoor playground.

The Grande Vista offers guest rooms as well as one-, two- and three-bedroom villas, making it the perfect choice if we’re traveling as a couple, with our younger ones or with the whole crew.

Sheraton Vistana Villages Resort Villas

Another lush resort just minutes from Walt Disney World is Sheraton Vistana Villages Resort Villas. While not as luxurious as the Marriott International hotel, the spacious, well-themed two-bedroom villas are large enough to sleep eight adults, which makes them just perfect for my clan. Of course, smaller villas are available if you don’t need all that space.

The Vistana Villages Resort offers everything I look for in an off-property “home base” when we’ve visiting WDW – a well-stocked kitchenette, washer and dryer, free WiFi and onsite dining. Bonus points for the fitness center, complete with cardio and strength training equipment, and fun activities from cookie decorating to tie dying, tennis lessons to shuffleboard courts. And did I mention that the International Drive Trolley, which shuttles to all the major attractions, has a stop right at the front door?

My family always pays special attention to the resort pool. The Sheraton Vistana Villages Resort Villas has three (in addition to the whirlpool). The Key West pool is a favorite, allowing the perfect laid back way to relax after a day of chasing the Mouse. But kids will clamor for the St. Augustine pool, featuring an interactive pirate ship and water cannons. (Good luck getting them out of that one!)

And if they had me at “no resort fees,” they certainly had my kids at “Mermaid Academy.”

Grab a celebration button at Disney Springs to start your magical vacation. Not a special day? Use a fill in the blank button to celebrate whatever you want! Photo credit: Scott Lebeau

Let It Go….

On property or off, a trip to Walt Disney World is always a magical time. So it may be time to let go of the idea that you have to stay on Disney property. We’ve found we can add value by staying in a larger, off-property resort. We have more room for the magic – and more money to spend as well. By using these Disney World tips, you can make your off-property experience one that equals or even eclipses those spent on Disney property.

How do you spread the pixie dust on your off-property Disney vacations? Share your Disney World tips with us!

Mary Dixon Lebeau Avatar
A former newspaper columnist, Mary is now a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Parents, Parenting, Pregnancy, Conceive and Family Circle (are you sensing a theme?). She was also the former travel editor at REAL Magazine (RIP). Her essays have appeared in such publications as the Christian Science Monitor, God Allows U Turns, and four different editions of Chicken Soup for the Soul. Mary is also adept at creating vacations that are “one size fits all.” The mother of five (ranging from “Expedition Everest” to “Dumbo”), she has become skilled at planning for all ages, collecting kiddie swap passes and making sure everyone is happy (sometimes all at the same time). A former newspaper columnist, Mary is now a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Parents, Parenting, Pregnancy, Conceive and Family Circle (are you sensing a theme?). She was also the former travel editor at REAL Magazine (RIP). Her essays have appeared in such publications as the Christian Science Monitor, God Allows U Turns, and four different editions of Chicken Soup for the Soul.
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