Walt Disney World is really great at their marketing all year long to inspire those to book a vacation especially with commercials and mailers. And, if you book a vacation through Walt Disney World Travel Company, they really do a nice job of getting you excited for your trip, give you the support information you need to plan, and even send you a nice thank you when you arrive home. I came across the above image from one of the Walt Disney World Travel vacation planning booklets that was given out a few years ago when their theme was to book an Incredible Vacation! In honor of the new Incredibles 2 released this year, it is indeed time for us to consider booking another Incredible Vacation!
First, Disney vacation planning has really changed a lot over the 30+ years I have been going, but then again a lot has also stayed exactly the same. We have a lot more tools at our disposal with apps, blogs, Facebook, information websites, etc. that really overload you with all the information you will ever need. I remember when I was a kid the only tool my parents had to plan a vacation was the annual Disney Birnbaum travel guide that contained all of the new information out that year. We would buy it every year and read it cover to cover before our annual trip. So, it is true you can really plan a Disney trip within an inch of its life, or you can make it very easy if you have the right information. It’s really up to you and any way can be fun! So, with that….. here is my easy guide to Walt Disney World Vacation Planning in 10 steps.
Before you get started, make sure you use trusted travel providers and read cancellation policies. Our family has always booked the entire vacation through Disney (with exception of plane flights). While there may have been some bargains out there we might have missed out on, but there are a lot of plusses to booking everything with Disney. They have a lot of free tools and videos to help you out as well. See link below!
STEP 1: Decide when you are going and for how long.
Spring (March-May) and Fall (Sept-Nov) are the best times to take advantage of big festivals, lower crowds, and best weather. The Winter (Dec-Feb) can be really great to take advantage of for lowest crowds and biggest cost savings. If at all possible, avoid the peak summer months of July and August as well as any major holidays (especially Easter break, Jersey Week, New Year’s Eve, and Christmas). A lot of folks have already looked at this in detail and have great crowd calendars to use to judge crowd levels. See link below for my favorite.
The next question is how long? Depending on what your interests are, here is my recommendation:
1 Day Hollywood Studios (this is going to go up to potentially two days with the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in 2019). But, for now this park is doable in one day.
2 Days for Magic Kingdom. There are so many rides per sq. ft. in this park that two days are a definite.
1 Day for EPCOT Future World and 1 Day for EPCOT World Showcase. EPCOT is really two parks in one, Future World and World Showcase. You can always do a little of each of the two major sections of EPCOT each day and break it up, which is what I normally end up doing to take advantage of fast passes for all of the rides.
1 Day for Animal Kingdom. Some folks might say leave two days for this park as well, and with the addition of Pandora you might want to leave two days for this park if you are a super animal lover. Think of this park as two in one also. There is a zoo inside a theme park, so leave time for both
1 Day for a non theme park day: Typhoon Lagoon, Blizzard Beach, Disney Springs, or a pool day. If you’re not a waterpark person, I do recommend leaving a day just to be at the pool or a day at Disney Springs shopping and dining. Theme parks can be a lot, and its a good idea to take a break in the middle of your vacation or at the end to just switch it up and do something else.
STEP 2: Decide where you are going to stay, on or off Disney property.
If you chose to stay off property, pick a hotel in the Disney Springs area. These hotels offer lower rates generally than Disney hotels and they offer some of the same perks that stating on property does like extra magic hours that let guests enter or stay later at the parks than non hotel guests. I have stayed at a few of these over the years including the Wyndham Lake Buena Vista and Hilton Orlando Buena Vista Palace, but recently I would recommend the Holiday Inn Orlando Disney Springs
If you can, staying on property at a Disney hotel is the way to go. Disney offers three tiers of hotels across the site: Value, Moderate, Deluxe resorts, and Deluxe Villas with full kitchens and laundry facilities. Depending on what your going to do while on your vacation: Animal Kingdom only? Going to try to see everything possible? Girls trip of shopping and pool lounging? Cooking 3 meals a day for a large family? Camping? You should pick a hotel that will accommodate your needs and budget. Note Disney does have a massive campground on property called The Campsites at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort as well that is really first rate. Below is a map of the Disney property that lists all of the hotel locations so you can choose the best fit as well as links to each hotel. Note this map is a little dated so what is listed as “Downtown Disney” is now re-named “Disney Springs”.
Value Resorts: Disney’s Pop Century, Disney’s All Star Movies, Disney’s All Star Sports, Disney’s All Star Music, and Disney’s Art of Animation Resorts. See link below for more details.
Moderate Resorts: Disney’s Coronado Springs, Disney’s Port Orleans Riverside and French Quarter, The Cabins at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort. See link below for more details.
Deluxe Resorts: Disney’s Grand Floridian, Disney’s Polynesian Village, Disney’s Contemporary, Disney’s Boardwalk, Disney’s Yacht Club, Disney’s Beach Club, Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. There are also two other Hotels not owned by Disney in the Epcot resort area called Walt Disney Swan and Dolphin that I would classify in the Deluxe category. See link below for more details.
STEP 3: Pick a mode of Transportation to/from Disney
Just a couple of tips on this one.
- If you book through Disney, you are eligible for their Magical Express service, which is a bus system transportation service that takes you and your luggage to and from your Disney resort from the Orlando International Airport included in your room stay. For more details see link: Disney’s Magical Express
- Disney resorts have now in the last year started charging a daily fee for parking if you are driving, so consider this in your cost considerations.
- Southwest airlines is our preferred airline to/from Walt Disney World, because they have a no change fee policy. So, you don’t have to worry about getting the best price at a certain time. We monitor our flights and have changed them multiple times as fares go up and down up until the time of our trip with no cost. For more details see link: Southwest No Change Fee Policy
- If you choose to stay off property at the above mentioned Disney Springs Area Hotels, the Holiday Inn Orlando Disney Springs does have location for rental car drop off as well as hotels in this area offer bus transportation to/from Disney parks.
- If you stay on property at a Disney resort, there is complimentary bus, monorail, and boat transportation throughout the property.
STEP 4: Buy Tickets and Decide on Extra Activities
There are a lot of options to consider when buying tickets and booking activities. There is always something going on at Walt Disney World to book special event activities and something new to discover. For the most up to date prices and special events, check out this link: Walt Disney World Tickets
Some ideas to consider beyond the normal theme park tickets…
- Special dessert or dinner add ons are available to enjoy prior to the fireworks shows at Hollywood Studios, Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, and Animal Kingdom. One fantastic new addition recently has been the Rivers of Light Dining Package at Animal Kingdom. For more details, see link Rivers of Light Dining Package These experiences can be kind of pricey for the family to enjoy, but they can really add a lot to your vacation experience if you have been there/done that at the parks. We try to do at least one new experience each trip…some other ideas
- There are a lot of low cost or free (< $50) activities to enjoy such as the Jedi Training Academy at Hollywood Studios, culinary tours at Animal Kingdom Lodge, Archery Experience at Fort Wilderness, Pirates Adventure Cruise at Grand Floridian, and Beyond the Seeds Tourat EPCOT’s the Land. There is really a lot to experience beyond the parks that can be added to your vacation.
- During the Winter Arts, Spring Flower and Garden, or Fall Food and Wine festivals at EPCOT, there are a whole host of art, culinary, or gardening experiences to take advantage of as well. The Summer time is the only time of year where the options of add on experiences isn’t as great, so keep that in mind.
- At your hotel, don’t forget the activities that are completely free to you to enjoy. Most hotels have free afternoon activities for the kids and a nightly movie to enjoy outdoors. Here is one example for Recreation at Disney’s Boardwalk
- There is also your standard spa, golf, or fishing experiences to consider. Disney spas and golf courses are first rate. One of my favorites has been the Madara Spa at the Walt Disney World Swan and a lower cost family friendly 9 hole golf course is the Oak Trail Golf Course, but all Disney spas and golf courses are really great.
STEP 5: Plan What Days You Will Attend Parks and Book Activities
If you are staying at a Disney property or a Disney sponsored resort, you can take advantage of extra magic hours allowing you to come to the park an hour early or staying later on certain days. A lot of folks decide what parks to visit based on this privilege, however it is not necessary. One rule of thumb is to try to avoid as much park time on Fridays and the Weekends as Florida residents and kids out of school will tend to fill up the parks on these days. So, if you can plan on doing a major park on a Monday and take advantage of the low crowds earlier in the day throughout the work week, that’s the best strategy.
STEP 6: Pick a Dining Strategy and Make Reservations starting 180 Days Out
At about 180 days out from your vacation, this is where things kind of get serious. If you are a foodie and/or want to make any table service dining reservations you can begin to do so at 180 days out. It is crazy, but some restaurants like Beauty and the Beast themed Be our Guest or Cinderella’s Royal Table at the Magic Kingdom book up so fast you might not even be able to get a reservation if you are not on top of it at that 180 day mark. Just be aware that dining is one aspect that really needs to be thought of and planned ahead of time if you are doing any kind of sit down meals. You can follow the link here to make reservations: Disney Dining Disney also offers tiered meal plans as well that are all inclusive, and are really great for a stress free vacation. We have taken advantage of these packages most trips, and at various times of the year Disney even offers free dining with your vacation package…which is a great benefit. You can find out more here Disney Dining Plans There is a quick service, standard dining, and deluxe plan. It is really up to you, but these packages can really fit anyone from a couple or a family style vacation well. Let’s put it this way, I have never left hungry on a Disney vacation 🙂
Note you do not have to buy your Disney dining package 180 days out to make reservations. However, Disney does charge you a fee for Cancelling Restaurant Reservations, so keep that in mind. Disney Dining packages can usually be booked a few days ahead of your trip, so you have time to decide.
On the other hand, if you are not into the restaurant kind of vacation you can bring in food to the parks and brown bag it. Or, you can make your meals in the villa style rooms Disney offers. But, the recommendation is to really think how you will be eating on your trip and plan accordingly. If you are making your own meals, or even just planning on having coffee and a bagel in your room before you head out you can pre-order your groceries through folks like Garden Grocer or even Amazon will deliver to your hotel when you arrive. We have done this multiple times and Disney has always take care of our food carefully and it has arrived in great shape.
In addition to making reservations, one other tip is to take advantage of the pre-order/mobile ordering Disney has started offering at its quick service locations. This is really a HUGE timesaver vs. waiting in line during those high lunch and dinner rushes. This can all be done through their My Disney Experience App, which will house all of your must know information. You can find out how to get started at My Disney Experience App and now’s the time to download it!
STEP 7: Download the My Disney Experience App and Pick Your Must Do Rides
One of the great tools Disney has introduced is their My Disney Experience App. Once you’re done making your dining and activity reservations, at 60 days out you can start making Fast Pass+ reservations. Think of the Fast Pass+ as your “cut” in line sort of speak. Years and years ago, this was not in existence, however these days it is a must unfortunately. It has taken some of the spontaneity out of a Disney trip, but adds some stress relief as well. Basically, you are allotted one, two, or three fast pass+ selections per one park per day based on certain ride types. So, a good suggestion is to get familiar with the My Disney Experience app and check out all of the rides at each park and pick your must do’s. The app will even give you ride times so you can see which rides are generally much busier/longer wait than others. For more information see link Fast Pass + Planning
STEP 8: Select Your Magic Bands
So, Disney offers these awesome things called “Magic Bands”. Basically, it is a little plastic wristband that you will wear everyday you are on your vacation that gives you access to EVERYTHING! Your room, buying Mickey Ears, eating breakfast at the Crystal Palace, etc. etc….you can do anything with this little guy. Once you book at a Disney Hotel, you will be mailed one of these guys. And, best thing is you get to customize yours! You can pick from a variety of colors and add little add ons like a mickey face, etc to make it completely yours. This is probably one of the best little ways Disney gets you started on the magic before starting your trip! See information on Magic Bands and my recent green magic band from our trip last fall 🙂
STEP 9: Make a One Page Itinerary
This is by far one of the most important steps. A good recommendation is to make a one page “itinerary”. This is a one page paper copy of all of your important details of your trip including what park you are visiting, dining reservations and times, hotel reservation number, activities, flight information, etc. you can keep in your back pocket or purse. Our family has been doing this for decades. My Dad invented and perfected the one page itinerary. It is really a fun activity that can be done either by hand or on the computer via Word or Excel. What is nice is this can get the whole family involved. We have started the itinerary in the past a whole year ahead of time and gone through dozens of versions by the time we were done. Select one member of the family to be “in charge” of the itinerary and they are responsible for printing it out and distributing it amongst all vacationers on the first day of vacation. WARNING: Don’t! distribute ahead of time as things get lost enroute to Disney. Below is a simple example. Look for an detailed example and tips in a later blog post.
What is important is that this is completely up to you on how to design and structure it and FREE! You don’t need fancy planning guides that cost hundreds of dollars. This is just your family and friends making your vacation something everyone can participate in with input, decorate it with your favorite Disney characters, etc etc. On the practical side, when technology fails you aka your phone dies, falls in the pool, gets caught in a Florida rainstorm, you forget your My Disney Experience password, etc etc. you have multiple copies of your important information on hand. And, you may say but My Disney Experience app has all this doesn’t it? Well, yes it does, but trust me it has its flaws and doesn’t display information in such a ready access way where you can pull it out of your pocket and find this stuff across your whole vacation week….versus 40 clicks on your phone 🙂
STEP 10: Just have fun already!!!
Other than that, one other recommendation is to make a little “Disney” kitty before your trip. Disney is awesome, but it is expensive. One of the pitfalls we run into is the unexpected stuff that we end up buying while we are there for one reason or another like my daughter just can’t live without that Ariel bubble wand, we just ran out of snack credits and really just need some extra water today, or we just got carried away and had one too many Lapu Lapu’s at Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto….ooops! Just allow yourself a few extra dollars to bring with you or in your bank account to make that check out bill a little easier on you vs. your last Disney memory as you get on that Magical Express bus is dreading your credit card statement next month. But, the most important thing is you had a blast and can’t wait to do it again! Happy Planning!!!