#1 tip if going during busy time....
FASTPASS FASTPASS FASTPASS
I've talked to people who didn't use FastPass [FP] either because they didn't know about it or they thought it was just for people staying on Disney Property.
FastPasses are available to anyone who buys a ticket to the parks. There are certain rides at each park that have a FP option. The big ones are obvious Soarin, Space Mountain, etc. but even some lesser known ones have it, you can find lists all over the internet or in a DisneyWorld book or on the maps they give you at the parks!
You put your ticket in the machine and a fast pass spits out. This fast pass will give you a window of time say '9:30-10:45' to ride and below it will say when you can get your next fast pass for example '9:15' or something like that. Important notes:
1) as soon as you can get another fast pass, get it. Do this before you ride the ride. It can be for the same ride or another ride in the park.
2) The return window is the EARLIEST you can return but USUALLY you can return later than the window. So if it says 9:30-10:45 and it's 11:30, not a problem. Really. We often get FPs before our afternoon break and when we return it's well AFTER our window, NO PROBLEMS.
Another tip. Have a designated Fast Pass retriever who will collect all tickets and get the FPs for a ride while rest are enjoying another ride or activity.
During the summer we never waited more than 20 minutes typically. In fact our longest wait was to meet characters for a movie 30 minutes in the A/C. I typically wouldn't have waited but my autograph seeker had been so patient and really wanted these characters and it was A/C.
Have a general plan of what you want to do at each park. The parks are LARGE. You can't just wander in and roam around. You'll waste time and it won't be fun. Trust me. This is not your typical amusement park.
I really like tourguidemike.com. It's <$20 if you go through a link on disboards.com. He gives great strategies which I like but it's not as commando as other touring plans. There is one more commando that I also like. touringplans.com. But that one works best if you stick to it which we don't like to do as much. But it's only like $8 for a year! When you're spending $1k or so on tickets, these small investments are worth it. I also recommend two books...Unofficial Guide to WDW [touringplans is their website] and PASSPORTER. PASSPORTER is great if you are in the beginning stages of planning and you want to stay on Disney Property as they focus a LOT on Disney Resorts.
INTERNET. My favorite board is disboards.com. A WEALTH of knowledge there. Budget ideas. T-shirt iron-on ideas, touring ideas, restaurant ideas, etc. Another favorite is mousesavers.com for savings and allearsnet.com for details about dining and events and resorts.
Dining Tips. You rarely can just walk up to the popular character meals or sit-down restaurants on property without a reservation. And they take reservations 90 days out of your vacation date. If you're onsite 90 days from the start of your trip you can typically book for your whole trip. If you're Off-site it's 90 days from the date you want to eat at that restaurant.
If you're staying onsite and have kids <10, the dining plan is definitely something to consider. Especially if it's your first visit or your going during busy times...get those autographs out of the way without crowds!
The hardest reservation to book is Cinderella's Royal Table breakfast. You eat in the castle with the princesses and have a separate photo op with Cinderella [she's too busy to be in the restaurant. ;o)]. You must call exactly at opening at the 90 day mark. Politely interrupt the CM and say 'Royal Table' and take whatever you can. And you still might not get it.
The Norway Princess breakfast at Epcot is a great alternative and it's really fun.
If you can get an early reservation before the park opens at Crystal Palace in Magic Kingdom, it's a great way to beat the crowds and get pictures before crowds and be ready for rope drop. Same with any breakfast. You don't want to be eating while crowds are building unless it's a slow time of year.
There are photographers everywhere at the parks. They take your picture in great settings and scan a card they give to you. You can now give this card to other photographers at the parks and they scan it after they take pictures. The best part is the family photographer can finally be in pictures! You can pre-purchase a photoCD for $100 which when you get home you order and all the great pictures come to you. I had a coupon last time which brought my total to $85 for 200 great pictures! Not bad. If you wait until you return it's $120ish. Pre-order.
Take time to see the little things.
There are so many little things all around the parks. The tree of life at Animal Kingdom and the trails with the animals. The kidcot stations where your kids can get stamps after they learn about animals. The drummers. The acrobats, candy lady, fabulous stamp stations at World Showcase. The wonderful imaginative kiosks all around Innoventions. The street characters at Epcot and Studios. The bubbles at Magic Kingdom and the topiaries and fun random characters. Take time to enjoy them.
It really is the happiest place on earth! It just takes a little planning.