Disclaimer: These tips and tricks are based on my own experience, there are not endorsed by any travel company, theme park or other organization. If you have your own tips or tricks, I'd love to hear about them. Share in the comments below.
My husband and I were in our 30s when we made our first trip to Orlando. I didn't think theme parks were my kind of vacation, boy was I wrong. Florida theme parks are about more than "just rides". Each theme park offers different experiences. I can't speak to all parks, but I can give some tips on the parks I have visited.
Some general tips for Disney parks - I highly recommend strollers, particularly for children under the age of 6. Disney parks involve a lot of walking. We found we were able to make it around a lot faster with a stroller. There are strollers available for rental at the park, and I've heard of a number of companies that rent strollers as well. If your child is under 40 pounds, an umbrella stroller will do the trick, we were able to pick a Disney themed stroller up at Wal-Mart for $15. We left it at our rental house for others to use when we left Florida.
Food - We've eaten in the Disney park, and I found the food to be quite yummy, but we had one morning that we ate breakfast at the park, and it was so much food, that we didn't find we needed to eat a big lunch, so we packed some granola bars, water and a couple sandwiches in the event that we got hungry. Definitely bring water.
For parades - shaded areas go first on hot days (I'm sure that seems like a no brainer), but if you want a shaded spot for a parade, you need to sit down at least half hour before the parade. One thing we wished we had done this past trip was brought an umbrella to use as a parasol. When you sit on the concrete, it gets hot quick.
Disney's Magic Kingdom - This is my favourite park. It may sound cheesy, but it truly is a magical place. Any pictures or video you've seen, it's what you've seen but 100 times more! I grew up with Disney movies, so to see so much of it come to life is truly magical. If you only experience one of the Disney Parks, this should be it. There's a combination of child friendly rides, like The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and Dumbo, and rides that are fun for older kids and adults, like Space Mountain and Rocky Mountain Railroad. I recommend hopping on the Disney train and heading to the back of the park, Fantasyland, first. A lot of people rush through the gates and run down Main Street USA, so the closest rides get busiest first. We were able to get off in Fantasyland and meet Daisy, Minnie, Goofy and Donald with less than 5 minute wait times! For hot days, my favourite places to cool off (besides Splash Mountain) are the queue for the Dumbo ride - it's an indoor play park, with air conditioning, People Mover (almost no wait - even on busy days), Carousel of progress (again - air conditioning), and It's a Small World.
Disney's Animal Kingdom - Expedition Everest is a great rollercoaster for thrill seekers, but there's plenty of " low key rides for those that aren't in to roller coasters. The Safari is a 'must do' . I recommend doing it more than once, no two safaris are the same. Even if you have a fastpass, I recommend heading right down to the Safari when the park opens, the wait isn't usually too long. For a hot day - Dinosaur is a good spot to go for relief. If you have small children, this ride may be frightening, and there is a height requirement.
Disney's Hollywood Studios - This park doesn't have a lot of rides, but the ones they have are thrilling! Tower of Terror and Rockin Rollercoaster. There are lots of shows and experiences at this park. Any of the shows are a good place to head on a hot day, or the Great Movie Ride.
We didn't visit Epcot, so unfortunately, I don't have any tips to offer here.
Fastpass+ - This is Disney's system to be able to go in a quick queue and make your way to the front of the line faster. With a Fastpass, you book a specific time to head back to the ride. Up to 30 days before your visit (if you're staying off site), if you have your tickets, you can book your Fastpasses in advance. You're able to book further in advance if you're staying at a Disney Resort. I recommend booking your fastpasses a soon as you're able to, some of the attractions that are very popular and the fastpasses book up quickly, such as the Elsa and Anna meet and greet and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train.
Fastpass is free with every ticket. If you are staying off site and live out of the US, you will receive tickets when purchased as opposed to magic bands, which are bracelets equipped with RFID technology that replace the tickets. The benefits of the magic bands are that they're right on your wrist, so there's no fumbling around for tickets. Tickets and magic bands are linked with your finger print, so with tickets, you need to keep track of who's tickets are who's. Magic Bands come in lots of different different colours and designs. The price of the bands starts at $12.95 USD (for solid colors, once you get in to the designs, the price goes up). You can purchase magic bands in the Disney Parks and at Downtown Disney, which I where we got ours.
My other recommendation for Disney Parks is to download the Walt Disney World app. With this app, you can view maps, wait times, parade times, character meet and greet times, make fastpass reservations and changes, and even dining reservations. Confession time - I sometimes check the app from home to see what the wait times are, out of curiosity.
Dining recommendations - In my opinion, the best character meal is Breakfast at Crystal Palace in Magic Kingdom You get to get some great breakfast foods and Pooh, Piglet, Tigger and Eeyore visit every table. We booked our reservation for 8:40 AM, 20 minutes before the park opens. The park staff are at the gate with the list of reservations to allow you in the park a little before your reservation. This is a fantastic time to get pictures of the castle and Main Street USA. And if you have a Memory Maker, the photographers are out to get some great family photos. Here is a shot I got walking down Main Street USA.
Memory Maker - The Memory Maker is a photo account that gathers any photos Disney photographers take in one spot. You can download them all at no additional cost. You can also order printed photos or products like calendars or mugs with your Disney photos on them, at an additional cost. Not only do you get photos, but some attractions feature video, such as Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Tower of Terror. Some pictures can even feature "extra magic" like inserting some Disney characters in to your pictures. Any person linked to your "My Disney Experience" will be able to add pictures. The Memory Maker is linked to everyone's Magic Band\ticket in your My Disney Experience account. I've been asked if the Memory Maker is worth getting. The price is $199, but you get $30 off if you purchase in advance. If you plan on spending multiple days in the parks, it's great! No worrying about having your camera with you and you get unlimited pictures by experienced photographers. It's also fantastic for big families or groups.
I'll leave you with this shot of my daughter on this magical vacation. Remember that the memories you make on a family vacation are priceless.