To say Disney has been a big part of our lives would be an understatement. We’ve been traveling to Walt Disney World at least once a year for approaching 20 years now. Each trip is different. We’ve had a 1-day Magic Kingdom rope drop to fireworks day. We’ve also purchased 7-day park hoppers for a group of 7. Our family has stayed at a Value resort as well as a Deluxe suite room with club level access. We have traveled during peak holiday times, the dead of summer (yep, it’s hot), and in the mildly crowded month of February. All that being said, we feel that we’ve got this planning thing down to a science. Today, we are going to outline our step by step guide for planning your WDW vacation. For those of you who may be tight on time, or looking for a less drawn out answer, here’s a quick Disney trip planning list before we dive into the details!
- Pick Your Dates
- Pick Your Resort
- Plan Your Days
- Create a Meal List
- Create A Must Do List For Each Park
- Create a Fastpass+ Plan (in My Disney Experience)
- Check the Disney Site for Closings, Time Changes, New Meal Reservation Options, etc.
- Purchase Any Park Necessities
1. Pick Your Park Dates
When picking your park dates, there are several things to consider. Most people base their decisions solely on time of year, but we have a few other things you might want to keep in mind before locking in your vacation plans. The first detail to think about is ticket prices. Currently, Disney has a tiered system for single day park tickets. This means certain times of the year (around holidays, school breaks, etc.) the ticket prices increase. There are rumors that the same trend may occur with multi-day tickets as well. Our family knows quite well that it can be challenging to avoid those “heightened” ticket dates. We have two teachers in the family, so a good chunk of our trips fall during summer, spring, or winter break. If your family does not have the challenge of a restricted schedule, you may want to pick your dates based on the cheaper ticket times.
Next, let’s talk about airlines. Walt Disney World has two airports that are fairly close to the parks. One is Sanford (located about 45 miles from WDW), and the other is Orlando International. Sanford is typically less expensive to fly into, due to its smaller size and slightly further distance from the parks. There are also fewer flights traveling into this airport, so flight dates and times may be limited. Our family used to fly into Sanford exclusively, until recently. We have had some frustrating experiences at this airport. Some of these may have been due to the airlines themselves, however they are worth mentioning. We have encountered some less that friendly security personnel as well as harsh employees checking luggage. The airport does not offer the Magical Express, and it will cost at least $100 to get a car service to take you to your resort on property (or anywhere nearby). You’ll also need return service to get you back. Keep these things in mind when booking your flight. For a few more flight tips check out our Finding The Best Flights to Disney World post.
Orlando International is a much larger airport, allowing more planes to fly in and out. Typically, flight tickets are higher to fly into this airport. The security and check-in can be crowded, but the staff is equipped for the crowds and the lines tend to move quickly. Keep in mind that the large number of flights will mean that there is a higher chance of a flight getting delayed or cancelled. We have found ourselves with delays getting back home from time to time.
This airport offers the Magical Express which is a bus service Disney provides to guests staying at one of their resorts. The service is completely free like most all Disney transportation. Once disembarking your plane, you will find the Magical Express signs and follow them to your bus. The cast members retrieve your luggage from baggage claim and you wait in the cushy, Disney bus. Depending on who else is arriving at a similar time may determine how many stops are made before reaching your resort. You are not guaranteed to be taken straight to where you are staying. This can also be a lot of stop and go movement. Keep that in mind if you have a family member who is prone to car sickness. The Magical Express will also bring you back to the airport at the end of your vacation (we like to call this the Tragical Express). Due to picking up multiple families at varying resorts, your window to return to the airport can be quite early to ensure everyone gets there on time. If you are not an early riser, or simply want to soak up every last minute of Disney magic, you may want to opt out of the return service.
Let’s talk weather. Disney weather can be extremely unpredictable, but they do have seasonal trends. Summer, of course, will be your hottest Disney days. July and August are typically their scorching months with highs reaching into the upper 90’s on most days. You should also be aware of the impending 2:00 or 3:00 rain shower. In the summer, it will rain for about 30 minutes. It happens almost every day, like clockwork. Be prepared (see our packing list below), and don’t let the rain ruin your magical day. Winter at Disney truly varies. A typical day in December will hover around the mid 50’s, but they have been known to have some cold snaps closer to the 40’s and highs reaching above 70 degrees. We find that spring is the perfect time to visit Disney. The days start out around 60 degrees but often make their way to 80. If you’re adventurous, like Collin, you can wear shorts all week! Or, if you’re like me, you can pack short sleeves and a light jacket. This typically won’t allow you to take a dip in Disney’s fantastic resort pools, but it will prevent you from sweating through your cute Dole Whip shirt while at Animal Kingdom in July.
You can also pick your park dates around the desire to attend a festival. One of our favorites is the Flower and Garden Festival that is happening now (February 28-May 28). Another crowd favorite is the Food and Wine Festival (August through November) and the newer, Festival of the Arts. These all occur at Epcot and give guests the opportunity to try some excellent food and beverages from the various pavilions. You can also find festival exclusive merchandise like limited run t-shirts, Mickey Ears, and collectors’ pins. Keep an eye out on your time guides for special seminars, shows, and classes.
Although holidays can be the most crowded park times, we highly recommend going to WDW during your favorite holiday at least once. Our top pick is Christmas (yes, it will be packed), specifically for Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. Events like this one are a great way to celebrate the holiday without being at the park on the actual day. VMCP runs from November through Christmas.
The last thing to consider when picking your park days is your budget. We mentioned above that certain times of the year are cheaper to travel to the parks. Disney also has a system that decreases your cost per ticketed day as your length of stay increases. For example, when you reach a 5 day park ticket, the cost to add additional days starts to diminish considerably.
2. Pick Your Resort
There are a few more things to consider when choosing to stay on or off property. Disney resorts come with parking that is included not only to park at your resort each night, but also at each of the Disney parks and water parks. This alone saves you an average of $22 for each park day. Disney resort guests also have access to extra magic hours. These are 1-2 hour windows of park time that are reserved exclusively for the resort guests. For example, if Magic Kingdom opens at 8:00 AM, extra magic hours may be from 7:00-8:00 AM. These special time slots may be at the beginning or end of the day and typically ensure alleviated crowds during those times. The most important benefit of staying on property is what we like to call the, “Disney bubble.” Being on site means there is consistently Disney magic at every turn. Your shampoo bottle has tinker bell on it, the lady at the check in desk will gives your child a Mickey Mouse sticker, and soft Disney music plays in the lobby. You might even be lucky enough to catch a glimpse into the past of Walt Disney himself (Check out the Carolwood Room for more on that).
3. Plan Your Days
After determining when you are going to Disney and what resort you will be staying at, it is time to plan your park days. First, you’ll need to decide if you want to visit a park each day or if you’d like to set aside a day or two for the pool, spa, resort hopping, Disney Springs, or a water park. Some of these items will, of course, be determined by the time of year that you’ll be traveling to WDW. Next, you will want to determine if you’re interested in purchasing a park hopper or single park tickets. A park hopper allows you to visit more that one park during any ticketed day, without using a second park ticket. This means, you can visit Magic Kingdom in the morning, hop on the monorail to Epcot for lunch, and be back at MK before Happily Ever After. This choice is truly a matter of personal preference, but we always recommend that guests consider the park hopper. Often times, you don’t think you will use it until you’re there and dying to split up a park day. We even more so recommend this option if your park days are less that 5 days in total. With the current state of Hollywood Studios, it is nearly impossible to get your money’s worth out of a full park day there. We suggest skipping it entirely or planning to park hop on that day if you only have 4 days to visit the parks.
Once you’ve decided what kind of ticket you’ll be purchasing and how many days you will be in the parks, you can pick what park to attend on each day. This is a very important step (for most guests). It lays the groundwork for creating a meal plan and determining your Fastpasses. For more on dining and fastpass+ be sure to check out the following posts:
5 Simple Fastpass+ Tips That Could Better Your Vacation Experience
Disney World Dining Tips For 2018
Begin this process by looking up when the extra magic hours are for each of your park days. If you’re not staying on property, skip this step. We suggest writing down each date you’ll be in the parks in a notebook, then writing what park has extra magic hours on that day. For example, March 13 – extra magic at Animal Kingdom 7- 8 AM. Once you’ve determined the park days that have those hours, we suggest you try to go to that park on the specified day. This will not only give you the most bang for your buck, but you’ll experience lighter crowds as well. We also suggest early extra magic over late, because you’re often too tired to stay at the parks by that time in the evening (unless you want to check out A One of A Kind Disney Experience: Shutting Down the Magic Kingdom! —- It’s Worth It!) Once you’ve determined what park to visit on each day, you’re ready for step 4. Don’t forget to write in your pool or Disney Springs days in your plans.
4. Create a Meal List
This is one of our favorite steps in the planning process. During this step, you will create an outline of any meals you are interested in while on Disney property. Begin with your table service meals, because those will require reservations. We suggest making a large list of options in case the restaurant that you want is full. This is especially true if you’re traveling during peak park times. One of our favorite tips is to consider restaurants outside of the parks for fantastic dining opportunities. We highly recommend the Contempo Cafe at the Contemporary, Whispering Canyon at Wilderness Lodge, the Yachtsman at the Yacht Club, and Floatworks at Port Orleans. After creating a list of where you want to eat, pick a day on your schedule that fits the restaurant. For example, if you’re planning to go to Magic Kingdom on Tuesday, you may want to schedule Whispering Canyon for that day due to its proximity to the park. Picking 2 or 3 options for each table service meal is a good plan until reservations are made. Next, call or go to Disney’s website and look for reservation availability. If your reservation is available on the day and time you’d like it, book it right then. Disney will not charge you at that time. Don’t be afraid to make 3 reservations for dinner at Magic Kingdom on one day until you decide which one you’d like to keep. Of course, please be courteous and cancel your extras as soon as you’ve determined which meal you’d like to stick with. Keep in mind, Disney will charge you a cancellation fee if they are not given 24 hours notice that you won’t be coming.
Next, pencil in your counter service meals. These will not need reservations, but you will want to have that time blocked out in your mind. This will also ensure that you don’t eat burgers and fries for each counter service meal. Plan all meals ahead of time, because Disney has endless counter service options that offer fantastic food. You’ll just want to do a little research on the type of food and price that fits your needs. Another thing to remember is breakfast. This may seem like a strange thing to say, but breakfast at Disney resorts is not provided. So, you’ll need to bring grab and go breakfast options on your flight or create a plan for a Disney breakfast. We are huge advocates for starting your day with a Disney table service meal. This fills you up for a good chunk of the day and is cheaper that all other meals for table service.
One last thing to consider is the Disney Dining Plan. This a service Disney offers that allows you to pay for all of your meals ahead of time and have a set meal plan for each day. There are three different tiers of dining plans. We typically utilize the traditional plan, simply called the “Disney Dining Plan.” This plan includes one quick service meal, one table service meal, and 2 snacks during each day. If done correctly, you can get a huge bang for your buck. However, the Dining Plan is an incessant amount of food. You will be full to the brim each day, and we often find that it isn’t possible to eat even one snack in a day. Unused items do rollover, but you’ll most likely find yourself with many “extra” snacks by the end of your vacation (Here’s what we recommend for the Dining Plan Disney Dining Plan 2018 Tips and Tricks ). If we are honest, we will say skip the Dining Plan. Your waistline will thatk you.
5. Create a Must-Do List for Each Park
After deciding on your attractions list, you’ll want to look at parades and nighttime spectaculars. Which ones are most important to you? Have you seen Illuminations several times and don’t mind skipping it? You’ll want to decide this ahead of time, because these events take up chunks of time in the day. They also typically only happen once a day. So, if you’re dying to see the Festival of Fantasy parade, you need to ensure your day does not have anything interrupting that period of time. I highly recommend setting aside time to see Happily Ever After if you’ll be visiting Magic Kingdom. This is a beautiful fireworks and castle projection show that occurs nightly.
Last thing for this step is to create a loose schedule for your day. Keep that word “loose” in mind. Part of going to Disney is being flexible. I know that sounds quite ironic as you read an eight step planning guide. But, Disney is a wonderful place no matter what you end up riding, watching, or eating. Don’t let your magic be spoiled by a derailed plan. In your schedule, you’ll want to include your dining, parade plans, nighttime spectaculars, and possible attraction times. However, take the time to enjoy the little things and not worry about the minute by minute and “play by play” schedule along the way.
6. Create a Fastpass+ Plan
My most important tip during the Fastpass process is to book early. Be on your laptop 60 (or 30) days ahead at 7 AM sharp to ensure you’ll get the selections you want. Keep in mind, attractions like 7 Dwarfs Mine Train and Flight of Passage are still quite challenging to get. Disney only releases so many Fastpasses for each day. Having mentioned that, it isn’t a bad idea to keep checking back. Make all of your selections and then edit them as you see fit based on new times or attractions that may come available.
Don’t forget to take advantage of the 4th “revolving” Fastpass. After completing all of your Fastpass+ selections, you can look on My Disney Experience for any Fastpasses that are still available for that day. That means, you can be in the queue of your 3rd Fastpass attraction and select another Fastpass for when you get off of the ride. There is no limit to the amount of times you can do this. Keep in mind, you’re not going to see a Tower of Terror Fastpass pop up at 3:30 while you’re at Hollywood Studios (unless you get quite lucky), but you can still enjoy some shortened wait times at other, great attractions.
7. Check the Disney Website for Changes
8. Purchase Any Park Necessities
One of my favorite things about planning for Disney is the building anticipation and excitement. A great way to get excited for your trip is to make some small purchases to prep for the vacation. My favorite thing to buy before heading to Disney is a cute Disney tee. Target, the Disney Store, Etsy, and Kohl’s all have some great options. When we were younger, our mom always let us choose a light up toy for the parks. By purchasing at home (even at the Disney store), you’ll avoid the $17 Buzz Lightyear from the cart on Main Street. Bringing a poncho is extremely important, especially if you’re traveling to Disney during the summer months (cue the 3:00 rain shower). We buy ours at the dollar tree – they’re cheap and come in a small, carry-on friendly pouch. You will also want to make sure you have any needed electronic devices. Collin double checks his camera lenses and batteries. I like to have an extra phone cord and Mophie charger. You’ll be taking lots of precious videos and pictures and don’t want to loose power before Happily Ever After starts! Lastly, double check your staples. Be sure you’ve got a good pair of sunglasses, walking shoes, and a sturdy carryon bag.
There you have it! We hope that this step-by-step planning guide will help make your Disney planning process a breeze! If we left out any of your best tips, please feel free to share them in a comment below. We love to hear what works for you, and it may be able to inspire others too. Don’t forget to share this article if you liked it! Guide4WDW.com is what it is because of you all! We love our Disney community. Happy planning!
As always, if you have thoughts, concerns, questions, or even some tips of your own to share, don’t hesitate to reach out to us on Facebook or your favorite social media platform. Give us a follow while you’re there, and we’ll keep the conversation going in the future. We’re not the largest Disney community, but we’re one that’s there and one that listens. Thanks for reading and have a wonderful day wherever you are!
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Last but certainly not least, if you’re starting the planning process, a great place to start are with some of our top planning articles! Looking for dining? Check out Disney World Dining Tips For 2018. Want to start with some more tips? 44 Excellent Disney World Tips for 2018 or Disney World Planning Guide and Tips For 2018 are a great place to begin! Looking to save money on tickets? Check out our friends over at The Official Ticket Center for great deals that even made it into our 2018 Discount Disney World Ticket selections and another great way to help us create more content through your contributions at no additional cost to you! You’ll probably even save money along the way.