July 20, 2024

3-Day Disney World Plan

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Our 3-day Walt Disney World itinerary offers an efficient plan for experiencing the highlights of Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom. This includes strategy for popular rides, beating the lines, where to eat,

Our 3-day Walt Disney World itinerary offers an efficient plan for experiencing the highlights of Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom. This includes strategy for popular rides, beating the lines, where to eat, plus what to see and what to skip if you’re tight on time.

Conventional wisdom says that you should spend a full day in each of the four theme parks, which would mean that you should spend no fewer than 4 days at Walt Disney World. This is our standard minimum recommendation–we usually advise doing at least 5 days at Walt Disney World, or even more if possible.

However, the practical reality is that not everyone can swing that long of a trip. There’s a lot to see and do in Florida, vacation time is limited, and Walt Disney World is expensive. We understand all of that. Rather than just saying, “that sucks, you’re on your own!” we are here to help with a plan of attack that’ll allow you to accomplish the “best of” Walt Disney World over the course of only a long weekend…

Even as diehard Walt Disney World Annual Passholders, this is a type of trip we’ve done ourselves many times over the years. Back when we first started visiting Walt Disney World together, Sarah and I were still students and it was “frowned upon” for us to skip class. That didn’t deter us, as it was also fairly easy to miss Mondays, so we’d fly out on Friday nights and return Monday evenings.

As we’ve bounced around, it’s been a similar story. Redeyes out from LAX at midnight on Thursday, hitting the ground running Friday morning at Walt Disney World, before departing on the last flight of the day on Sunday night. (This one is the ultimate money-saving hack, as it reduces the resort stay by a day!)

With that in mind, let’s start by discussing some recommendations to set you up for success with the 3-day Walt Disney World plan. First, we highly recommend Park Hopper tickets. This ticket type is more expensive, but Park Hoppers also allow you to accomplish a lot more. Especially on a shorter trip, this is a splurge that is “worth it” in our view. There will be other places to trim the fat from your vacation budget, and we’ll point to some of those in this plan.

If my math skills serve me correctly, Park Hopper tickets are also the only way to do 3 parks in 4 days. Doing a single park in a single full day is not the primary focus of this itinerary because we already have single day options for each of the parks. If you want the “easy” answer to this itinerary, it’s doing full days at Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios, plus a morning at Animal Kingdom and afternoon/evening at EPCOT. That’s not our ideal approach, but it’s the most straightforward one. See the following to put together your own plans:

  • Magic Kingdom 1-Day Itinerary – An aggressive itinerary for Walt Disney World’s flagship park that starts with an early morning in Fantasyland and Frontierland. It’s normally tough to do Magic Kingdom in a single day, but this comes very close.
  • EPCOT 1-Day Itinerary – This one manages to hit all of the EPCOT E-Tickets with minimal waits, while also prioritizing a leisurely and low-crowds experience in World Showcase.
  • Hollywood Studios 1-Day Itinerary – Home to the most new headliner attractions, this covers Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, Toy Story Land, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, roller coasters, and the park’s many shows.
  • Animal Kingdom 1-Day Itinerary – This itinerary gets you in and out of Pandora – World of Avatar efficiently, bypassing the frequent two-hour waits for Flight of Passage. It also allows ample time for exploration, animal watching, and eating.

If you don’t have Park Hopper tickets and are thus forced to skip a park, make it Animal Kingdom unless you or your kids are big fans of nature and wildlife, or the marvelous mind of James Cameron, Avatar auteur. As much as we enjoy Animal Kingdom, it is the least-compelling way to spend a full day at Walt Disney World, especially after the overhauls at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and EPCOT. It’s also currently the only park without a nighttime spectacular, and it closes the earliest of the four.

If you only have 3 days for 3 parks, skipping Animal Kingdom is the obvious option for 80% of visitors. For the remaining 20%, it’s probably 50-50 as to whether you should skip EPCOT or Hollywood Studios. Almost no one, even those without small children, should skip Magic Kingdom. It is the flagship park at Walt Disney World for good reason, and the quintessential experience for guests of all ages.

Second, we strongly recommend staying on-site. At this point you might be skeptical that this plan is actually appropriate for those trying to do “Walt Disney World on a Dime.” Hear us out, because we are not suggesting that those on a tight budget stay at the Grand Floridian or most luxurious on-site hotels.

To the contrary, we recently debated the value proposition of Walt Disney World’s cheapest Value Resorts. That explains why these are not only “good enough” for most guests, but also, can offer better bang for buck as compared to staying off-site. In a nutshell, not having to rent a car or use an Uber or Lyft offsets most of the savings offered by off-site accommodations for many families. As with anything, there are some exceptions to that.

Even if you’re doing a longer Florida vacation and Disney is only a small part of that, we recommend staying on-site at Walt Disney World for a portion of the trip. In fact, our advice is precisely the same for those visiting Universal Orlando. We are huge proponents of split stays, and think dealing with the mid-trip transfer is better than the hassle of commuting everywhere from a centralized home base. On top of that, there are the on-site perks that each theme park operator offers its hotel guests.

This brings us to the third point, which is that taking advantage of Early Entry at Walt Disney World is almost essential. Also help is Extended Evening Hours, but that only occurs two days per week and requires a higher-tier hotel stay.

Although Early Entry is only (officially) a 30-minute headstart on the off-site crowds, it can be hugely advantageous–especially at EPCOT and Hollywood Studios. That’s also true to a lesser extent at Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom, but can be big at the latter on days when official park opening is 8 am instead of 9 am. Anyway, the key here is not to dismiss Early Entry because it’s “only” 30 minutes.

Fourth, effective use of Early Entry can eliminate the need to purchase Genie+ or Lightning Lanes. Otherwise known as paid FastPass, this is Walt Disney World’s line-skipping system. While we don’t love the idea of paying for something that was once free, it can be a necessary evil to accomplishing everything in a shorter amount of time.

However, if you’re up early and stay out late, that may not be the case. We’ll point out where Genie+ might be helpful and where it isn’t, and give you the option. It’s always an option for “bonus” rides, but is not strictly necessary if you’re staying on-site and leveraging Early Entry to its fullest. (See! We told you there’d be options to cut the fat from your budget!)

Finally, there’s the current limitation on Park Hopping. Although Walt Disney World is relaxing reservation rules and a bunch of other policies in January 2024, there’s no indication that Park Hopping restrictions will change. As such, expect Park Hopping to continue starting at 2 pm for the remainder of this year and in (at least) early 2024. This really puts a damper on our “ideal” 3-day itinerary for Walt Disney World, as we would love to bounce around earlier and more often.

The silver lining to this restriction, if you really want to look for one, is that it does reduce the amount of wasted time you might otherwise have commuting between parks. To each their own on that one–we find that strategically Park Hopping more than makes up for the time lost in transit. (Plus, some forms of transportation–like the Skyliner, monorail, and boats–are almost attractions unto themselves!)

With all of those caveats out of the way, let’s dig into the big picture of this three-day Walt Disney World vacation plan. Actually, we have two different plans. The first one we’ll call the “aggressive” plan-of-attack:

Day 1: 

  • Early Entry at Magic Kingdom (see our strategy for Early Entry at MK)
  • Regular park opening and full day at Magic Kingdom

Day 2: 

  • Early Entry at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (see our strategy for Early Entry at DHS)
  • Regular park opening at DHS
  • Park Hop to EPCOT
  • Afternoon at EPCOT
  • Park Hop to DHS
  • Evening at DHS

Day 3: 

  • Early Entry at Disney’s Animal Kingdom (see our strategy for Early Entry at DAK)
  • Regular park opening at DAK
  • Park Hop to EPCOT or Magic Kingdom
  • Evening at EPCOT or Magic Kingdom

Here’s the simplified or streamlined plan of attack:

Day 1: 

  • Early Entry at Magic Kingdom
  • Regular park opening and full operating day at Magic Kingdom

Day 2: 

  • Early Entry at Disney’s Hollywood Studios
  • Regular park opening and full operating day at DHS

Day 3: 

  • Early Entry at Disney’s Animal Kingdom
  • Regular park opening and morning at DAK
  • Park Hop to EPCOT
  • Afternoon and evening at EPCOT

As you can see, the basic difference between these two plans is that the first one has more Park Hopping. It also offers potentially more time at Magic Kingdom or EPCOT, while reducing the amount of time spent at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Personally, I wish we could deduct time from Animal Kingdom, but that 2 pm Park Hopping time trips us up!

The rationale for bouncing back and forth between EPCOT and DHS on the second day of the aggressive itinerary is that it provides the foundation for making an informed decision as to how to spend your final afternoon and evening. It might seem like an obvious decision, given only the short segment of the day previously spent at EPCOT and full day at Magic Kingdom.

However, some families actually prefer multiple Magic Kingdom days while skipping other parks entirely, so this sets the stage for a “choose your own adventure” final day based on experiences (and what you think you missed) from the first two days.

It’s more than just that, though. Disney’s Hollywood Studios has a formidable ride roster, but it’s heavy on headliners and light on secondary attractions. As a result, wait times skyrocket within about an hour of park opening. People grow fatigued of long lines, and end up leaving early as a result.

Watching stage shows or doing meet and greets is one alternative that will allow you to “wait out” the crowds, but another option is Park Hopping to EPCOT, enjoying the middle of the day there, and returning to DHS once the crowds are lower in the evening.

Bouncing back and forth also allows you to leverage the stacking strategy for Genie+ Lightning Lanes. “Stacking” Genie+ ride reservations is possible because of the 120 minute rule, which allows you to make a new reservation every two hours.

If you prioritize grabbing Lightning Lane reservations for popular rides early in the day, you’re going to be holding a “stack” of Lightning Lane reservations so long as you continue making them whenever eligible. It’s a great option for your Park Hopper destination.

This approach works because your return times will be kicked out further into the future, and you’ll be able to make new selections prior to redeeming old ones. This is an especially good approach when going from Disney’s Hollywood Studios to EPCOT, or from Animal Kingdom to anywhere.

In the former example, you could make your first Lightning Lane for Slinky Dog Dash, and then make the rest for EPCOT, potentially scoring Lightning Lanes for Frozen Ever After, Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, Test Track, or Soarin’ Around the World. (It’s highly unlikely you’ll get all four, but even 2 of them will save tremendous time during the middle of the day.)

Sticking with the topic of Genie+ Lightning Lanes, we’re big fans of buying this at Magic Kingdom. We would stop short of saying it’s a must there, but it can be incredibly useful, easy, and not nearly as stressful there as the other parks. You can expect to score 6 or more Lightning Lanes at Magic Kingdom–more than any other park. See our Magic Kingdom Genie+ Priorities & Lightning Lane Rankings for the best order of selections.

In terms of step by step strategy for the flagship castle park, you can simply consult our 1-Day Itinerary for Magic Kingdom. Since this 3-day Walt Disney World plan calls for a full day in MK, that slots nicely into this.

The only additional info we’d add is that if you do return to Magic Kingdom for another half-day, you’ll definitely want to attempt the TRON Lightcycle Run Virtual Queue‘s afternoon drop. Doing the attraction at night is a totally different experience, and one that we highly recommend if at all possible!

When it comes to the potential partial day parks, Genie+ can be very useful at both EPCOT and Disney’s Hollywood Studios, especially when stacking. However, there are a couple of pitfalls and superior alternatives.

At DHS, you can knock out 3-4 headliners during Early Entry and rope drop. Check out our report on Early Entry at Disney’s Hollywood Studios that covers our experience knocking out the “triple digit trio” at DHS before the park opened to regular guests. From there, you can knock out more in the first hour of operations and then pivot to popular character meet & greets if those are important to you.

Fast-forward to the end of the evening, and you can do the remainder of the popular rides with minimal wait via standby lines. This can be a great alternative to paying for Lightning Lane access, and one that is far less stressful, too. That approach also works well with the second showtime of Fantasmic, especially on nights when that occurs at or after park closing. If you’d prefer to play it safe and also use the Genie+ service, see our Lightning Lane Rankings for Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It’s not a bad option, just not a strictly necessary one.

Early Entry is also a great option at EPCOT, but you won’t be able to take advantage of that with this 3-day Walt Disney World plan. Sadly, the only other good alternative is Extended Evening Hours, but that’s only one day per week, and only Deluxe Resort guests are eligible. So Genie+ is the obvious option, right? Well…maybe.

Another potential compromise you’ll be making with this plan is Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind. As of the time of this itinerary’s publication, this new EPCOT E-Ticket still uses a virtual queue. Read our FAQ & Ride Guide to Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind for everything you need to know. About half of the time, the virtual queue for this is still open after 2 pm Park Hopping starts, but that is very crowd-dependent.

Buying Individual Lightning Lane access also can be an option with Cosmic Rewind. The busier the day, the less likely you are to have success with the virtual queue or buying Lightning Lane access. The thing is, there’s no magic wand that can be made to ensure a “perfect” and complete 3-day Walt Disney World experience. Compromises come with the territory, and anyone suggesting otherwise is selling you a false sense of security.

Another practical reality to understand going in is the size of EPCOT. It’s a colossal park and, naturally, all of its most popular rides are scattered as far away from one another as possible. Literally. As such, Genie+ can require a lot of backtracking, and by the time you’ve done that, the case could be made that you would’ve been better off simply walking less and waiting in standby. As someone who doesn’t mind walking, that’s not my personal philosophy…but it’s very easy to see why that would be the case for others.

With that in mind, we’d recommend using our Half-Day EPCOT Itinerary or EPCOT Lightning Lane Rankings (or both) to determine the best approach for knocking out everything at EPCOT. If you do use both, there’s a good chance the simplified plan above will be sufficient, meaning that you’ll only need one afternoon and evening at EPCOT and don’t need to do all the bouncing around.

The one thing we’d caution against is seeing how well Genie+ works at Magic Kingdom and assuming it’ll be a similar story at EPCOT and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It will not. (Conversely, if you opt to start at one of these two parks for whatever reason, don’t skip Genie+ at Magic Kingdom after being disappointed by it at DHS.)

Finally, there’s Animal Kingdom. This is far and away the easiest park from a strategy perspective, with the salient piece of advice being “don’t do stuff midday.” Seriously, that’s about it. Go early or stay late and you’ll be just fine. Without question, arriving for Early Entry is the best option, especially on dates when it starts at 7:30 am. That is absurdly early, and a huge barrier for most guests. If you’re able to arrive to Animal Kingdom by 7 am, this gives you a huge advantage.

Rushing to Pandora – World of Avatar and knocking out Flight of Passage and Na’vi River Journey during Early Entry is huge. From there, you can pretty much run the table, doing almost every attraction in the park as a walk-on. There’s a strong possibility that you’ll be done with every ride by mid-morning, and need to kill time until it’s Park Hopping time.

Fortunately, Animal Kingdom has great stage shows (Finding Nemo: The Big Blue & Beyond and Festival of the Lion King), along with excellent wildlife exhibits. Still, you’ll likely be ready to leave by about 1:15 pm, so you can arrive at EPCOT or Magic Kingdom right at the start of Park Hopping hours. From the above, it should be obvious, but Genie+ is wholly unnecessary at Animal Kingdom. Don’t waste your money on it there. (Stacking Lightning Lanes for EPCOT or Magic Kingdom is a potentially different story, but probably not necessary.)

Ultimately, that’s our advice for how you should spend 3 full days at Walt Disney World. Obviously, this isn’t a strict step-by-step schedule, but rather, is a rough rubric for illustrating potential ways to accomplish just about every headliner and highlight at all four parks. Also obvious is that some sacrifices are going to be necessary, as you cannot do everything at Walt Disney World in only a long weekend.

But for that matter, you can’t do everything at Walt Disney World in 5, 7, or 10 days. Even if your vacation is better measured in weeks rather than days, you still will not see and do it all. Heck, we’ve been visiting Walt Disney World for decades, and have spent (literally) multiple years at the parks & resorts complex and there are still things we haven’t done. Walt Disney World is basically a modern metropolis (albeit with a mouse as mayor) and just like any living and breathing city, it’s impossible to “complete.”

Honestly, that’s a big part of why we like efficient itineraries like this, even on longer trips. Consolidating our park plans gives us time to explore Walt Disney World beyond the parks, enjoy our resort, spend time at Disney Springs, do resort crawls, and more. Savvy strategy to avoid attraction lines saves time that is better spent “wasted” by relaxing and wandering. At least, that’s how we like to do Walt Disney World.

In reality, there’s no one-size-fits-all “best” way to tackle the theme parks, resorts, etc. at Walt Disney World. About the only thing you can’t do is sleep in, visit the parks from 11 am until 4 pm, and leave early. This has always been the worst way to do Walt Disney World, and that remains true to this day. Yet, for reasons beyond me, that continues to be the “preferred” approach for so many guests. (We should be thankful for those guests, as they make it easier on the rest of us!) If you simply don’t do that, you’re automatically ahead of the pack!

Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!

YOUR THOUGHTS

Thoughts on our suggested 3-day Walt Disney World theme park plan? Do you prefer rope drop, Early Entry, Extended Evening Hours, Genie+ and Lightning Lanes, hard ticket events, or some combination or the above? Or, do you favor a miss of approaches when touring the parks? How do you do things differently in each park? Do you agree or disagree with the parks we chose for full and partial days? Any other feedback on arriving early or staying late at the Walt Disney World theme parks? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

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