Only One Day at Disney World? Here’s How to Create Your Game Plan

Only One Day at Disney World? Here’s How to Create Your Game Plan

The most common question I see posted on social media and that gets asked to me in person is “I’m going to Disney for just one day, how do I make the most of it? What should I do?” The reason for only having one day is not so relevant, but it’s usually do having other trip plans, only being in the area for a short time, or cost.

The first thing to do is accept that you will not see everything, even in one park, during your one-day visit to the happiest and most magical place on Earth. You can come close, and you can see the most important/highlight attractions in a park and even in multiple parks.

Here’s how I would approach a game plan and what I advise others when they ask this common question.

Decide which park(s) you will visit

If cost is your reason for only visiting one day, then you will likely already have decided that you are just doing one park. And if that’s the case, you probably will want to choose either Epcot, Hollywood Studios, or Animal Kingdom because those one-day ticket prices are cheaper than Magic Kingdom’s tickets.

If cost isn’t the factor, or you can manage to pay the extra cost, I always suggest going to (at least) Magic Kingdom for your one-day visit. It’s the classic, original Disney World park and has the most attractions.

If that doesn’t convince you, another way to decide on park(s) is to consider which Disney characters/movies/properties you like and which park has those (if any of them do). If Lion King or Avatar is your all-time favorite and you can’t get enough of it, Animal Kingdom is an easy choice. If you aren’t as into the intellectual properties of Disney and want a more ‘adult’ experience, Epcot with the world showcase, festivals, and non-IP based rides will be good choice. Hollywood Studios is sort of the opposite of Epcot here – it’s full of IP-based attractions like Toy Story, Incredibles, Frozen, and Star Wars. And of course, it’s about to get a whole lot more of the latter.

You can’t really go wrong with whatever you choose, and if you can’t decide, keep reading because it might get easier for you.

To park hop or not to park hop?

This goes right along with deciding which park to visit. If there’s two you really want to see, and only a few attractions in each park you have to do, this can work. You will definitely have to prioritize what you’re doing each park, and be careful not to lose track of time in your first park.

Another good benefit of park hopping is to spend the day in one park, and then go to a second (or third) park at night just for their nighttime show. It might seem like a waste of money, but adding the Park Hopper to a ticket isn’t too much and Disney nighttime spectacular shows are worth it. For me, I’d definitely go to Hollywood Studios at night just to see Fantasmic (and I have multiple times, but it makes a bit more sense with an annual pass).

I have done 3 parks in one day with a Disney first-timer before. (I’ve done all 4 in a day by myself, but that’s more of a challenge if you’re not there for the first time and don’t mind missing a lot.) The story of how I did 3 parks with a first-timer is at the end of this post.

Consider the type of attraction you like

What types of attractions you like will also help determine what park you go to. Magic Kingdom has a lot of dark rides (slow, IP-based, and friendly for all ages) with a handful of thrill rides (the mountains + mine train). It’s a good compromise, and is why I recommend choosing Magic Kingdom as a default one-day option.

Epcot has very few rides in general, but the ones they have are more thrill-based and tend to be very popular (Test Track, Mission Space, Frozen Ever After). You can also fill a day at Epcot and not ride a single ride (you can do this any park but it’s easiest here with the World Showcase shops, shows, and festivals).

Hollywood Studios has some thrill rides (Rock N’ Roller Coaster, Tower of Terror, Slink Dog Dash) and also several shows (Frozen Sing A Long, Little Mermaid, Star Wars shows, Indiana Jones) along with several character meet and greet spots. 

Animal Kingdom is similar, with some great thrill rides (Everest, Flight of Passage, Dinosaur, Rapids), plus two amazing musical shows (Festival of the Lion King and Finding Nemo) and the classic Kilamanjaro Safaris.

Timing is everything in Disney planning

How much time you have before your one-day trip to Disney will determine a couple things:

  • FastPass Availability
  • Dining Options

To get the best FastPasses, you need to be staying at a Disney hotel and be booked at least 60 days ahead of your trip. With you doing one day, neither is likely (especially staying at Disney) so you’re able to book Fast Passes 30 days in advance of your trip if you have your tickets bought.

That’s the the best way to get those sought after FastPasses for the most popular rides and you still won’t likely get anything for the newest, most sought-after rides like Seven Dwarves Mine Train (Magic Kingdom), Slinky Dog Dash (Hollywood Studios), and Flight of Passage (Animal Kingdom). Even people booking 60 days out struggle to get those FPs booked exactly when they want them.

30 days out, though, you should be able to get a FastPass for most other attractions in each of the four parks at some point in the day.

Note: You can only book 3 FastPasses ahead of time and they have to be in the same park, even if you have a Park Hopper ticket. So, you want to book them in your first park of the day and get them as early as possible (late morning is best, you’ll see why in a second). Once you use all 3, you can select one additional FastPass at a time and keep selecting a new one as you use each one – and you’re not tied to the same park for those.

Plan on “Rope Dropping” your first park

Rope dropping is the term used when you are in the park at the ‘official’ opening time that day and then you go immediately to a popular attraction to ride it in the standby line (no FastPass needed) before the line gets too long.

The parks all start letting guests in up to a certain point prior to the posted opening time (usually 9 am). So in Magic Kingdom, you can get walk up and down Main Street and wait by the castle. The other parks are similar. If the opening is at 9 am, you’ll want to be in the park by around 8 am – so an hour early – to make sure you get at the front of the pack going to your chosen attraction. You won’t be the only one doing this method, that’s for sure.

This is why you want late morning FastPasses if possible, and not ones right at 9 am or park opening, because you can ride those first couple rides usually without a FastPass in 15-30 minutes (even the big ones). Plan what you will Rope Drop and then book FastPasses for other must-dos on your list.

Park Hopping Tip: Be mindful of park hours and early/late special events in each park. Start in the park that opens the earliest to all guests and end in the park that closest the latest to all guests.

Stay till closing in your last park

This is the opposite Rope Dropping at opening – plan to stay till your last park closes. This works best if the park is open later, past their nighttime spectacular showtime. And that’s usually just in Magic Kingdom and only on some nights (when they’re open till midnight).

If Magic Kingdom is your only park, you should still plan to rope drop and stay till closing. You’ll get the most done in those early morning and late night hours – the middle part of the day is the busiest, hottest, and a good time to plan for meals, shows, etc.

If you’re park hopping, end your day in Magic Kingdom and start somewhere else (where ever else you are going). Even if you want to see a night show in another park, you can still make it over to Magic Kingdom after it ends around 9:30 for Epcot’s Illuminations and Hollywood Studios’ Fantasmic and have a couple hours of play time before closing.

The best thing you can do here, because it varies daily, is to check the park hours and start at the earliest opening park and end at the latest opening park on your to-go list. Be mindful of parks that have extra magic hours for resort guests before or after park opening, as that will restrict your access and also make that park more crowded before/after those times because resort guests will prioritize that park that day.

Case Study: 3 Parks in 1 Day with a First-Time Guest

In September 2017, I was living in Florida and had an annual pass. That month Disney offered 1-day Park Hopper tickets on sale for annual passholders to “bring a friend” to the parks. I took advantage of that with an out-of-state, first-time guest during that month.

The ticket had to be bought at the gate, so there was no chance to book FastPasses ahead of time for both of us (only I could book them with my AP and the chances of adding the other guest to them later was low, so I didn’t bother). I also didn’t book any dining reservations (though I could have for both of us because you don’t need tickets booked ahead of time) because dining wasn’t a priority for the day.

First Park: Animal Kingdom

We bought the friend ticket at Animal Kingdom before park opening and were in the park just as it opened. Pandora was open then, but it was brand new and neither of us had an interest in prioritizing that. Once we got the ticket bought added to the My Disney Experience app, I immediately started looking for Animal Kingdom FastPasses.

I got them for:

  • Dinosaur
  • Finding Nemo The Musical
  • Kali River Rapids

All were late morning, or right at noon, timeframes. While we waited for the first one to open up, we went to Everest and rode it in the Single Rider line (we didn’t get to go together, but we both got to ride at the same time and with minimal wait – another good option to consider).

We did the 3 FastPasses and then drove over (because we couldn’t leave my car at Animal Kingdom as we wouldn’t be back) to Epcot.

Park 2: Epcot

The plan for Epcot was to make it a quick stop and the focus was Food & Wine Festival for lunch instead of doing a quick service restaurant. We made our rounds through the World Showcase first and ate at a few, but not nearly all, country booths. Enough to get full though, for sure.

On the way out, we were able to ride Test Track also in the Single Rider line. I hope you’re seeing a trend that Single Rider, though they aren’t too common at Disney World, is a life saver for fitting in last-minute plans.

After Test Track, we drove over to Magic Kingdom.

Park 3: Magic Kingdom

By this point, it’s pushing 3-4 pm in the afternoon and we’re also getting tired and slowing down. But we’ve done 3 rides, a show, and walked through the whole Food & Wine Festival plus some photo stops and other fun along the way just from exploring the park.

I love FastPassing Magic Kingdom, once you’ve used up your first three, because a lot of the slower, less popular dark rides still have FP availability throughout the day. We were able to get 5-6 FastPasses for rides like Winnie The Pooh, Small World, Haunted Mansion, and even a couple Mountains throughout the afternoon and evening. I was actually booking Magic Kingdom afternoon FastPasses while were still at Epcot, because I knew we wouldn’t do anything needing a FastPass at Epcot and I could work the system to our favor this way.

Around 7:30 pm, we headed back to Main Street. We grabbed food at a quick-service restaurant (Casey’s I believe) and then grabbed a seat around the Partners statue in front of the castle. This would be our spot for the next couple hours as we waited for the fireworks show. That may seem early and like a waste of time, but if you want to get a good viewing spot, you’ve got to claim your spot around that time. You cannot just show up 5 minutes before the show time – you won’t have a good view at all.

We watched Happily Ever After at 9 that night and then decided to head out and go home, instead of staying till close. We were tired and had done enough throughout the day to make it worth the ticket purchase (that was already discounted for the special AP deal).

Skipped Park: Hollywood Studios

At the time we went in September 2017, Great Movie Ride had just closed, Toy Story Land didn’t exist, and this park was looking pretty bare. With our limited time, we opted to skip this one. I personally would have skipped Animal Kingdom instead and still went to Hollywood Studios briefly, but my friend really wanted Animal Kingdom.

What I’d do differently

  • Don’t skip Hollywood Studios – it’s added enough now that it’s not as good of a good idea to skip any more, but it still depends on your interest and what you want to see (see above)
  • Stay till closing – there were plenty of rides we didn’t do in Magic Kingdom, we could have done most of them if we stayed after the fireworks were over
  • Park at Disney Springs or plan a better start/end point so we don’t lose time driving between parks and make use of Disney transportation instead of navigating parking three times in the day

In Summary

I realize this is a lot to take in and a lot to consider for just one day at Disney World. Here’s a quick-hit summary of what I’d recommend:

  • If you only do 1 park, do Magic Kingdom if the extra cost isn’t a factor
  • If you want to Park Hop, try to limit yourself to 2 parks instead of 3 or all 4 (don’t do all 4) and pick one park to spend more time in and make the other a quick hit, primarily for a night show, etc.
  • Rope Drop in the morning, do 3 FastPasses immediately after, get additional FPs one at a time after that continuously, and stay till park closing – regardless if you’re doing one park or multiple
  • Consider what types of attractions (or specific ones) you want to do/see the most to 1) decide which park(s) you will go to and 2) what you will do first before anything else
  • Make a list of priorities in the parks you’re going to so you have a plan, even if it’s just a quick list in your phone Notes app
  • Don’t stress it too much – at the end of it all, you need to have fun and you will as long as you don’t stress the details too much. It might not all work out perfectly, even with planning, so be okay with that and just be happy with what you do get to do. You can always back for another trip, even for another one-day adventure!

What’s your best advice for people doing one day at Disney World? Have you done this yourself and have any tips to share from your experience? Leave a comment below!

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