How To Plan a Disney Vacation
2023 Disney World Planning Guide
Planning a Disney vacation can feel like a daunting task, especially for first-time guests. The entire Walt Disney World resort area covers around 43 square miles, which is almost twice the size of Manhattan! Learning how to plan a Disney Vacation can help ensure you have a great time on your trip.
There are so many engaging activities, exciting attractions, magical details, and wonderful restaurants and resorts. It’s nearly impossible to experience everything at Disney World over the course of several trips, let alone in a single visit to the park. That’s why it’s important to start your planning early and decide what you should prioritize on your trip.
This guide will take you through how to plan a Disney World vacation step-by-step. Disney vacations have become harder to plan each and every year, with Disney Genie+, Advanced Dining Reservations, My Disney Experience, transportation, etc. There’s so much to know, and this Disney vacation planning guide will be your go-to resource.
Do You Need To Plan a Disney Vacation in Advance?
It’s no longer feasible to go to Disney World without doing at least some planning ahead of time. Even entering a theme park requires an advance reservation.
In our view, these are the four bare-minimum planning actions needed to have even a functioning Disney vacation.
- Decide when you will visit. Crowd levels can impact your experience and time of year will affect your overall cost.
- Decide which park you will attend on each day. Theme park reservations are mandatory — no reservation, no entry.
- Decide which hotel you’ll stay in. While you can technically find a room without a reservation during some parts of the year, it’s not worth the risk.
- Decide if you want to dine at any table-service restaurants. Dining reservations are strongly suggested; during the busiest days, many restaurants may completely refuse walk-ups.
These are the minimum plans needed to have a tolerable Disney vacation. To make your vacation good — or, dare we say, magical — you’ll probably want to do a good bit more Disney planning. Below, we walk you through the eleven things you need to do to plan the best possible Disney World vacation.
Our planning guide is a great way to get started with researching your upcoming Disney World vacation. As you’ll see, planning a Disney trip is no small task. Imagine if you could have someone else do most of the work for you, for free!
That’s why we strongly recommend you contact the Disney travel agents at The Vacationeer. There are plenty of good reasons why you should use a Disney travel agent, including taking advantage of their years of Disney experience and letting them handle making all of your reservations.
But one of the best reasons is that their planning services don’t cost you anything!
The Eleven Steps to Disney World Planning
There are plenty of ways to plan your Disney vacation, and everybody has their own way of doing it. Below we’ve outlined what we believe to be eleven critical steps, in roughly the order that you should do them. We’ve tried not to overwhelm you with too much information at once, but there’s no doubt that planning a Disney trip can be very complicated. Take your time, read through it all, and follow the links throughout to find out more about some of the items we discuss here.
As you start to plan for a Disney vacation, you should begin researching well in advance of booking the trip. The information you gather during this important first step will help you through the rest of the process; starting early gives you plenty of time to learn before key dates in the trip planning process. It will also be key to creating a detailed itinerary for each day so that your vacation will include every event, attraction, and restaurant you wish to experience.
Without a daily itinerary and at least some knowledge of the parks, Disney World can be a confusing and overwhelming place. Informed and organized vacationers are less stressed, save more money, and have more fun!
Being in-the-know will also help you secure your spot at popular resorts, attractions, and dining establishments.
Fortunately, it’s easier than ever to research travel destinations online, and Disney World is no exception. There are lots of Disney World resources online these days (such as our entire website!), so getting up to speed with the ins and outs of the parks is well within your reach. To get you started, we’ll go over some basic information about Disney World.
Disney World at a Glance
Walt Disney World has four major theme parks:
Other Resort Complex Amenities
In addition to four theme parks, you’ll find a full resort complex covering upwards of 27,000 acres:
- More than 20 large resort hotels are owned and operated by Walt Disney World, with additional third-party hotels nearby
- There are nearly 400 places to eat and drink at Disney World, from ice cream carts to high-end luxury dining, and everything in between
- Disney Springs is the largest shopping, dining, and entertainment district at Disney World; Disney’s BoardWalk offers an additional entertainment and dining district
- Disney World has 2 water parks: Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon
- WDW has 5 golf courses and 2 mini-golf courses, an entire sports complex, and several lakes (offering boating, kayaking, parasailing, fishing, and other water sports)
There’s much, much more to learn about Disney World, but the above information should give you the basics that you’ll need to know as you start to plan. At the end of each of our 11 steps in this guide, you’ll find links to special planning tools and additional articles/websites that further discuss items mentioned in each section of our planning guide. The tools and links for this step are immediately below:
My Disney Experience is Disney’s mobile app & website that serves as a centralized hub for everything related to your Disney vacation. In the app, you can:
- Create a profile
- Add friends and family members so you can plan together
- View your tickets and reservations
- Access the Disney Genie itinerary planning service
- Purchase priority access to certain attractions through the Genie+ and Lightning Lane service
- Enter a virtual queue for highly-demanded attractions, when available
- Access entitlements under the Disability Access Service, if applicable
- Place mobile orders for some meals, helping you avoid lines at some quick-service restaurants
- Use the MagicMobile service, which lets you use your mobile device as a contactless payment/entry device around Disney World.
Note: If you’d rather not use the MagicMobile service to access your tickets and services, you can either purchase a MagicBand (a colorful RFID-enabled wristband), or request a plastic RFID card at no charge.
The app is available for both iOS and Android devices — you might see it listed in the app store as “My Disney Experience” or even just as “Disney World.” There’s no charge to download and use the app; you might see a notice about in-app purchases, but that refers to the ability to do things such as buying park tickets or placing mobile dining orders.
Once you’ve downloaded the app, you’ll want to sign in — you can use an existing Disney account or create a new one. You’ll also need to grant it permission to use location services because some features such as virtual queuing are geofenced (only available when you are in a certain location based on your phone’s GPS).
Downloading the app early in the planning process is important for a few reasons. First, it’s a great research tool. Second, getting to know it now will make it all the easier to use during your trip. And most importantly, as you begin to purchase tickets or make reservations you’ll want to link them to your Disney account. For example, linking your hotel reservation in the app allows you to access an extended restaurant reservation booking window — as well as to access early booking for Lightning Lane attraction entrances.
Many (but not all) of the same services are also available through a dedicated section of the Disney World website.
On average, a typical Walt Disney World vacation for a family of 4 in 2023 will cost about $5,240. This includes a 7-night hotel stay at a Disney Value Resort, 6 days of standard theme park tickets, Genie+ service, and quick-service meals for 4 people over the course of the trip.
Just like any vacation, you might want to plan for additional expenses such as transportation costs, upgrades, a longer stay, and souvenirs; or you might opt to save some money by staying off-site, shortening your trip, spending a day or two away from the parks, or visiting during the off-season.
Not surprisingly, some families end up putting themselves into debt to make a Disney trip happen.
Of course, you won’t know exactly how much to budget until you make some choices about hotels, dining, tickets, etc. — but now’s a good time to at least begin thinking about how much you’re comfortable spending on your trip so you’re not left with sky-high credit card bills long after.
The resources below are a great way to start that process. If you don’t want to devote a ton of time to it at this point, we suggest you start with just the first two resources… our How Much Does it Cost to Go to Disney World article and our Disney World Cost Calculator.
Consider Working with a Disney Trip Planner (For Free!)
This is a great time in your Disney vacation planning timeline to connect with a Disney Travel Agent if you’re planning on using one. Your agent can provide a more accurate estimate of what you can expect to spend by walking you through all of the big choices you’ll be making in the remaining steps of the process.
Not sure which Disney Travel Agency to use? We strongly recommend The Vacationeer. It’s not hard to see why we’ve ranked them as the best Disney travel agency. First and foremost, they don’t charge anything to use their planning services and there’s never any obligation to book. And, as an EarMarked Diamond level Authorized Disney Vacation Planner, they’ve arranged Disney trips for thousands of families. They boast a team of 90+ travel agents, but you’ll have one dedicated agent to serve as your personal Disney trip planner from start to finish.
Contact them to see which money-saving promotions might be available for your trip. They can book your reservations, set up a payment plan for your trip, and even automatically apply newly-announced discounts to your trip after you book!
Deciding which time of year to go to Disney World is a very important part of the planning process, and not just for the obvious reasons of school/work schedules. Crowd sizes, special promotions, festivals, and weather should also factor in your decision; these can not only affect your overall experience at Disney, but also your overall cost as well.
Crowd sizes are a major consideration when planning a trip to Walt Disney World. Because park attendance fluctuates throughout the year, there are certainly better (less crowded) times of the year go.
For those of you who are not tied down with obligations, you are in a much better position to be flexible with your travel dates. For the rest of us, work schedules, school schedules, and other factors often influence the timing of our vacations, so we just have to plan a trip around a timeframe that works.
With millions of annual visitors, each Walt Disney World theme park can become crowded. The week you choose to visit the park can have a major impact on wait times for attractions and crowd density on the sidewalks and in the restaurants. Each park also has day-to-day crowd dynamics to consider.
The best way to gauge crowd sizes any particular day – at any one of Walt Disney World’s 4 theme parks – is to consult our Disney Crowd Calendar. By using data compiled from recent years, our crowd calendar determines which theme parks will have the shortest lines and which parks will have the longest lines.
While not everyone has the flexibility to plan their trip around the least-crowded dates, crowd calendars can still be a valuable tool to help you to maximize your Disney experience during your visit.
It’s also worth noting that crowd levels tend to be a good indicator of how expensive your hotel and tickets will be. Hotels and tickets are both subject to seasonal prices; the less popular times of year are the least expensive, while high-demand times like holidays and summer vacation cost more.
When is Walt Disney World Least Crowded?
Walt Disney World parks are typically less crowded from January 2nd until just prior to Presidents’ Day week (third Monday in February), the week after Labor Day until just prior to Thanksgiving week, and the week after Thanksgiving weekend until the week prior to Christmas. As a general guide, when schools are in session, WDW is usually less crowded.
When is Walt Disney World Most Crowded?
Walt Disney World parks generally experience their highest attendance around school breaks. These include around Presidents’ Day week (third week in February), the Spring Break timeframe from mid-March through late April, Memorial Day weekend, Summer (mid-June through Labor Day), Thanksgiving week, and Christmas week through January 1st.
During their slower seasons, Disney World will sometimes offer special promotions to lure guests to the park.
Some previous examples have included a Free Dining promotion which offered meals as part of a package that included non-discounted resort hotels and park tickets. Other promotions have also been offered from time to time, allowing for discounted hotel rates, special ticket packages, or other benefits.
While promotions have been a bit scarce lately, things do tend to change quickly. It’s a safe bet, though, that any promotions that come along will be limited to specific hotels or specific travel dates, and will likely be in the off-season. If your plans are flexible, you’re more likely to be able to take advantage of these.
Walt Disney World is a great destination any day of the year. However, there is something about the seasonal festivals which make the park extra magical.
Besides the spectacular Festival of the Arts (typically in January) and the Flower & Garden Festival during the spring and early summer, most of our favorite seasonal events take place during the Fall and Winter months.
Epcot hosts The Food & Wine Festival in the fall, and Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party is a real treat for Magic Kingdom guests around – you guessed it – Halloween.
During November and December, the wildly popular Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party takes place at Magic Kingdom, as do a host of other holiday events, such as A Frozen Holiday Wish Show (Magic Kingdom), Christmas Day Parade on ABC (Magic Kingdom), Joyful! (Epcot), Holidays Around the World (Epcot), and much more.
If we had an absolute favorite week to be at Walt Disney World, we may have to choose some time in early December. The park is festive, the weather is comfortable, and the crowds are lighter than normal.
Any How to Plan a Disney Vacation guide must discuss the nuances of Disney’s weather.
First of all, Orlando, Florida is known for its warm and sunny weather. Ice and snow are virtually non-existent here and the temperatures rarely dip below the freezing level.
That said, there are some seasonal differences that you may want to take into consideration when booking your Disney World vacation. January is typically the coolest month, July is the warmest and wettest, and June has the most sunshine hours.
Daytime thunderstorms are a given during the summer; they often pop up with little warning and disappear just as quickly, usually leaving a rather unpleasant sauna effect in their aftermath. On the bright side, a storm lasting 30-45 minutes is usually enough to send people scurrying for the exits, leading to lighter crowds afterwards.
Hurricane season technically lasts from June-November, though September has historically been the most active. Even then, it’s rare for the Orlando area to take a direct hit from a hurricane. That said, the parks have had to close a few times for hurricanes, though typically only for a day or so at a time. Thanks to Disney’s generous hurricane cancellation policies, it’s still generally safe plan a trip to Disney during hurricane season (though travel insurance is still also a good idea).
Our favorite seasons at Walt Disney World are probably the pleasant spring and fall seasons, and our least favorite season is during the summer months. Not only are the crowds heavy, but the weather can be quite hot and humid. If you do plan a summer vacation at Disney World, remember to come prepared with the proper amenities to keep you cool and hydrated.
Overwhelmed and ready for some expert help?
Because there is just so much to see and do at Walt Disney World, there is really no right answer for how long your Walt Disney World vacation should last. However, there are several wrong answers. One wrong answer would be staying for only 1 or 2 days!
We recommend that any trip should last at least four days, with an ideal range of a full week or so. Some people buy an Annual Pass and spend 30+ days at the park, so the sky is the limit! It just depends on your budget, time limitations, who you are traveling with, and what the goals of your trip are. But with so much to see and experience, a day or two won’t even scratch the surface of what Walt Disney World has to offer.
How Long Do Most People Stay at Disney World?
Most Disney World vacations last 3 – 7 days. Many guests devote one full day to each of the four Disney World theme parks. Given their size and number of attractions, it’s certainly possible to spend two days each at Epcot and Magic Kingdom. Additional days can be spent re-visiting one of the parks, going to a Disney water park, or doing other various activities, inside or outside of the park.
If your objective is to experience most attractions, shows, parades, etc., you really need to provide yourself with adequate time/days to explore all facets of each park. If saving money is an important consideration, a shorter trip can help accomplish that.
Many guests like to spend a day or two at other (non-Disney) Orlando-area attractions – such as Universal Studios, SeaWorld, Legoland Florida, or Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. Other guests set aside a day or two for golfing, boating, or just to simply relax at the pool.
If your trip to Disney World is a “rite of passage” event for the kids – and your goal is to just experience the popular rides and get a feel for the park – 3-4 days is doable. However, just be aware that you may feel as though you are rushing to get as much in with your time constraints. You probably won’t be able to experience everything that you set out to achieve.
Besides simply having enough time at Disney World, another reason for booking a longer WDW vacation is the financial incentive. The more days you spend at the park, the less the cost of your daily ticket. That’s not to say you will spend less money on an 8-day pass vs a 3-day pass — you certainly won’t. But, the cost per day goes down substantially the more days you spend at Disney World.
Thoroughly review all current promotions and ticket pricing scenarios before deciding on the duration of your Disney World vacation.
Planning a Disney World trip must, of course, include consideration of how you will actually get there.
The two most common modes of transportation to Walt Disney World are by car and by air.
Buses and trains also come in and out of Orlando, but these options tend to be more problematic with luggage considerations. Consult your bus service or Amtrak for their guidelines on luggage if you decide to go this route.
Driving to Disney World
For guests within a reasonable driving distance (or those who just love a good road trip), there’s some convenience in having your own car at Disney. Of course, you’ll need to consider all of the costs associated with driving to Disney… fuel prices, auto maintenance / wear & tear, tolls, and parking fees.
An oft-forgotten expense is that those staying in an off-site hotel must pay a daily parking fee at the theme parks (Disney hotel guests don’t pay this fee).
Those who live far away will likely find the cost of driving to Disney World to be prohibitively expensive. But for those who live in the southeastern US — or who are faced with the prospect of buying airline tickets for a large family — driving might be the right choice.
Flying to Disney World
Since most people fly to Disney World, let’s review some of your best options for booking a flight.
Most people use airline travel search engines – such as Priceline, Kayak, Expedia, or Travelocity – to book their air travel. We also recommend checking Google Flights or ITA Matrix — both are robust search engines for finding airline deals. If you have flexibility with your booking dates, sign up for Airfarewatchdog alerts. You can get real-time or daily alerts for special offers and flight deals between your departure city and Orlando.
Which airports are closest to Disney World?
Orlando is served by three major airports, all of which have confusingly similar names.
- Orlando International Airport (MCO) is the airport of choice for trips to Disney World. It is about 20 miles away from Disney and offers by far the most ground transportation options to Disney World.
- Orlando Sanford International Airport (SFB) is located about 45 miles away from Disney World. Though it’s further away and offers fewer ground transit services, it may be your only choice for a nonstop flight if you’re flying with a smaller/discount carrier or if your home airport is a smaller regional facility.
- Melbourne Orlando International Airport (MLB) is located about 65 miles away from Disney World. It’s the farthest “Orlando” airport from Orlando, and is likely better suited for a Disney Cruise from Port Canaveral than it is for a stay at Walt Disney World.
If you’ll have a rental car and don’t mind a bit of a drive, you can also investigate flights into Tampa International (TPA, about 75 miles away) or Daytona Beach International (DAB, about 70 miles away)… but the flight discounts would have to be amazing to make up for the difference in time and cost.
Tips To Save on Flights to Disney World
Here are a few more cost-savings tips for booking your flight to Walt Disney World:
- For the best deals, book six weeks in advance.
- Scan for deals in the morning, as most airlines offer their best deals at this time. Act fast because good deals get scooped up quickly.
- The most inexpensive flights are often the earliest departures in the morning.
- Wednesdays are typically the cheapest days to fly.
- Credit cards with frequent flyer mile points can save you money on future flights.
- Not all airlines offer their cheapest flights through travel search engines. Check low-cost airlines individually to see if booking directly through their website is less expensive.
Traveling Within Disney World
Regardless of how you get there, once you’ve made it to Disney World, transportation is a breeze. Disney offers a completely free network of monorails, boats, buses, Skyliners (suspended aerial gondolas), trams, and walking paths to move people from place to place. You’ll really only need a rental car if your plans take you off-site to a non-Disney destination (and even then, an Uber might be better).
Check out our Disney transportation map in the planning tools below to map out your journey through Disney World.
Disney owns and operates more than 20 on-site hotels, which it calls “Resorts.” This name can be a bit confusing, because you’ll also hear the entire Walt Disney World area referred to as a “resort.” As an alternative to the on-site hotels, you can choose to stay at a hotel not owned by Disney; that could save you some money, but you’ll miss out on a number of perks offered exclusively to on-site Guests.
Official Disney On-Site Resorts
There is something special about staying at an official Disney resort.
For one, each resort has its own distinctive character, charm, and identity. You can leave the real world behind and surround yourself with Disney magic, 24/7.
Since all of these resorts are on Disney World property, you will be in close proximity to all the parks and have direct access to monorails, boats, skykliners, and buses. A few resorts are close enough that you can easily walk to Magic Kingdom or EPCOT.
On-site guests also receive special perks that off-site guests do not. These include Early Theme Park Entry and the ability to book Dining Reservations and Lightning Lane entries ahead of non-Disney resort guests. Make sure you link your hotel reservation to your My Disney Experience account to take advantage of these perks!
Disney’s on-site Resorts are categorized within the following tiers:
Disney Value Resorts
The rooms at Disney Value Resorts are smaller and are situated among larger campuses, so you might find there’s a bit of a walk between your room and the bus stops, dining, and front desk. Transportation to the parks is mostly via bus or Skyliner. Dining is typically quick-service that’s more akin to a food court, but still usually features a surprising variety that goes well beyond burgers and pizza. Value resorts are a fantastic option for families who want to keep an eye on their budget but still have all the benefits of staying at Disney.
Disney Moderate Resorts
The Disney Moderate Resorts offer a nice middle ground between the Value and Deluxe resorts. You’ll have a somewhat upgraded room, good transportation, and usually a few different dining options that may offer a broader menu. A Moderate Resort is a great way to upgrade your stay at a Disney resort hotel without a major impact on your budget.
Disney Deluxe Resorts
Deluxe Resorts tend to be closest hotels to the theme parks, usually just a monorail, boat ride, or short walk away. Not only is it easier to get to the parks in the morning and back from the parks at night; it’s also easy to avoid the hottest and most crowded parts of the day by returning to your hotel and letting the kids cool down in the pool or take a midday nap. Then, while everyone else is hot, tired, and cranky, you’ll be refreshed and ready for the nighttime fireworks. Deluxe resorts also often feature larger rooms, the best pools and restaurants, and a generally upgraded experience.
Disney Deluxe Villa Resorts
Deluxe Villa Resorts offer vacation home style amenities such as kitchens and separate bedrooms, which can be a great option for larger groups. These range from studios (basically a hotel room that also includes a kitchenette and pull-down bed) to 1-, 2-, and 3-bedroom units featuring full kitchens and living rooms. There are even some unique offerings, such as treehouse villas and over-the-water bungalows. Even beyond these deluxe villa resorts, many other Disney hotels offer family suites.
The only major disadvantage of staying at an on-site Disney resort is the cost. With the extra perks and close proximity to the park, these resorts are more expensive than off-site resorts, so your decision will really just depend on your budget and the priorities of your vacation.
Traveling with a fuzzy friend? You might be surprised to learn that pets are welcome at a select few resorts, and there’s even a facility made exclusively for them. Check out Pets at Disney World for more information.
Our favorite Disney World YouTube Channel has a great overview of Disney’s official on-site Resorts.
Off-Site Hotels (non-Disney)
Most off-site properties are further away from the park and do not have direct access to the monorail (though some might offer a limited shuttle service). Despite this, many off-site resorts are still quite close to the parks – some, in fact, are situated directly on Disney-owned land. For example, you’ll find third-party hotels not far from EPCOT, as well as an extensive “Hotel Boulevard” just an intersection or so away from Disney Springs.
While you won’t enjoy the same perks as on-site guests, these off-site properties are generally very nice. And some non-Disney hotels do have agreements with Disney to allow their Guests to experience some special perks.
Many have all the amenities of the more expensive Disney Resorts (some even have more), and the rooms are often larger. If your party has 5 or more guests, off-site resorts offer more value, as most of the on-site 5-person+ options are quite pricey.
The bottom line is, if you are sticking to a tight budget and don’t mind being a little further away from the action, a non-Disney resort may be your best bet. You can have a fantastic vacation staying at either on- or off-property resorts.
We recommended that you explore both options and weigh the pros and cons as they apply to your situation. You can certainly split your nights between on-property and off-property. But if you are only at Disney World for a few nights, we recommend just paying a little more to be on the property.
While it’s certainly possible to go to Disney World without ever setting foot inside a theme park, very few people actually do that.
And given that it’s possible that you may end up spending more on park tickets than on your hotel room, the decision about which tickets to buy is an important one.
We recommend you review all your options well in advance so you have time to think about which package makes sense for your budget and duration of stay.
And remember, you now need not only theme park tickets, but also a theme park reservation (Disney Park Pass) to enter a theme park.
Disney Theme Park Tickets
Let’s first look at the theme park tickets.
When and Where to Buy your Disney Theme Park Tickets
As a general rule, you should always purchase tickets either directly from Disney, your travel agent, or an through an authorized seller/reseller — and you should do so well in advance of your departure. This will shield you from any price hikes that might occur and gives you the best chance of securing a reservation to your desired park on your desired day.
Given the requirement to have a theme park reservation, it’s not wise to just wait to buy your tickets when you get to the front of the park.
Most importantly, NEVER buy your tickets via eBay, Craigslist, or another unauthorized reseller. There’s a very good chance that those tickets will be expired, completely used (no days left), or simply counterfeit. Don’t risk it!
Disney theme park ticket pricing varies throughout the year. They’re generally the most expensive during popular times (such school breaks, holidays, and weekends) and the least expensive during slower times. Prices also vary by park; Animal Kingdom is usually the least expensive and Magic Kingdom is usually the most expensive, with Hollywood Studios and EPCOT falling somewhere in between.
You can purchase single-day tickets or multi-day tickets (up to 10 days). Ticket prices are structured in a unique way that rewards Guests for committing more time to the parks; the per-day price of a multi-day ticket gets cheaper the more days you add.
We have a full rundown of the ticket pricing structure in our How Much Does it Cost to Go to Disney World article.
Types of Theme Park Tickets
The basic Disney World theme park ticket allows entry to only one theme park per day. But there are optional upgrades which allow you to visit multiple parks on the same day or add other special experiences.
Park Hopper option
The Park Hopper ticket option allows Guests to visit multiple parks on the same day. After starting the day at one park, Guests may then go to a different theme park later in the day (typically as early as 2PM).
We especially love the Park Hopper for spending the first part of the day at one theme park, then spending the evenings at Epcot to take advantage of the wonderful dining options at World Showcase. It’s an especially great option for those who have a limited amount of time at Disney World, and for those who have short attention spans!
Water Park and Sports option
The Water Park and Sports option allows Guests to visit one theme park per day, while also providing visits to other Disney properties. Guests who purchase this upgrade will be able to visit water parks, mini golf and nine-hole golf courses, and the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, when available.
The number of these visits provided is equal to the number of days of theme park admission purchased. As an example, a 4-day park ticket allows four visits to these facilities.
Park Hopper Plus option
The Park Hopper Plus option combines the Park Hopper option and the Water Park and Sports option into a single upgrade. Guests who purchase this upgrade will be able to visit multiple theme parks in the same day, and also enjoy a number of visits to water parks, select mini golf and nine-hole golf courses, and the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, when available.
Disney Park Pass (Theme Park Reservations)
A theme park ticket isn’t the only thing you need to get into a Disney theme park. Guests who buy theme park tickets must also have a theme park reservation through a system called Disney Park Pass. If reservations are not available, Guests cannot enter the theme park.
Planning ahead is crucial if you want to ensure you can get into your desired theme park on the day you want to visit. If you’re traveling during a more popular time of year such as spring break, summer, or Christmas, it is quite possible that theme park reservations may not be available if you wait until the last minute.
Park Pass theme park reservations can be made as soon as you’ve purchased your theme park admission tickets. We recommend you buy your tickets as far in advance as possible to have the best chance of getting the theme park reservations you want.
Park reservations are required to enter Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom. They’re not needed for Disney Springs or the water parks.
If you’ve added the park hopper option to your ticket, you do still need a reservation for the park you’ll be starting your day at. You do not need a reservation for the second park you’re visiting (“park hopping” to) on the same day, but the park still needs to have capacity to admit new Guests.
Need help navigating all of the ticket options? Contact the Disney Experts at The Vacationeer. They can help you decide which tickets are right for you and give you tips on snagging theme park reservations. And best of all, their planning services are completely free!
There are literally hundreds of places to eat and drink around the Walt Disney World Resort, from the humblest popcorn cart to the fanciest high-end fine dining restaurant. If this is your first trip, you may be surprised by all the world-class dining experiences the parks and resorts offer.
Gone are the days when Disney was known simply as a “burgers and kid’s meals” type of destination. Sure, there are plenty of quick-service restaurants and snack stands around the park, but there is also an eclectic mix of fabulous table-service restaurants to satisfy the toughest of culinary critics.
Some restaurants are themed around Disney attractions, while others are geared towards families or offer formal dining experiences.
All-you-can-eat buffets are popular, as are regional cuisine restaurants. Epcot’s World Showcase offers culinary experiences aligning with the specific country represented, while Disney Springs has an abundance of fabulous dining experiences to choose from.
There’s even a popular dinner show called the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue that features two hours of comedy and music (accompanied by endless fried chicken, BBQ ribs, and strawberry shortcake).
There is really something for everyone’s taste buds at Walt Disney World!
Types of Restaurants
There are two primary types of restaurants at Disney World.
A quick-service restaurant, sometimes also called counter-service, is a place to grab a casual, quick bite. The ordering, payment, and service experience is somewhat similar to what you might expect at either a fast food restaurant or a “fast casual” place such as a Panera Bread or Chipotle. You’ll stand in line, order, and pay (or use the mobile ordering service described later in this planning step); then, you’ll either receive your food right away on a tray or be given a pager-type device to alert you when it’s time to come and pick up your meal. You won’t have a server at your table, and when your meal is over you’re expected to bus your own table and discard your trash. Despite the ordering experience being akin to a fast food place, your food isn’t necessarily just burgers and fries. Many locations have innovative menus and substantial meal offerings that rival those of a traditional restaurant.
A table-service restaurant, sometimes also referred to as a “sit-down” location, is a more refined dining experience. You’ll check in with a host/hostess, be taken to a table, and introduced to a server who will take your order and tend to your needs during your meal. These restaurants vary from relatively casual a la carte locations, to all-you-care-to-eat buffets, to elegant signature dining locations. Menus vary from homestyle cooking to authentic international cuisine. Advance reservations (described below) are strongly suggested, as some restaurants may completely refuse walk-ups during busy times.
Advance Dining Reservations
If you plan on dining at table-service restaurants during your vacation (recommended!), reservations are essential.
Disney calls its restaurant reservations “Advance Dining Reservations.” Sometimes you’ll hear people call these “ADRs.” An ADR lets you secure your table at some of Disney’s most popular table-service restaurants (restaurants in which you have a server at your table who takes your order and brings your food to you).
Slots during prime hours go quickly, especially at popular dining locations like Cinderella’s Royal Table and Chef Mickey’s. Booking your reservations as soon as the reservation window opens is key to getting what you want.
Guests staying in a Disney Resort hotel may make dining reservations for the entire length of their stay (up to 10 days’ worth of reservations) as early as 60 days in advance of their hotel check-in date.
All other Guests can make their advance reservations for dining as early as 60 days in advance of the meal.
Note: you might have previously heard that dining reservations could be made 180 days in advance. While that was previously true, the booking window changed in 2020.
We recommend that you spend some time reviewing on Tripadvisor and Yelp before making your Advance Dining Reservations (or speak w/ a Disney Travel Agent first).
Reservations are not offered for quick-service dining at Disney World, though some locations do provide a mobile ordering service through the My Disney Experience app. For these locations, you can view menus in the app, then order and pay ahead of time. When it’s time to eat, you can bypass the regular ordering/payment line and go straight to the mobile pickup window to get your food.
One of Disney’s unique dining offerings is its character dining. If getting some face time with Disney characters is a must-do for your trip, this is a great way to accomplish it without having to wait in line (and you get to enjoy a great meal, too!).
While you enjoy your meal, several Disney characters will come to your table for a brief visit. It’s a great chance to snap a photo, ask for an autograph, or just enjoy a personal interaction. Because the characters are coming to you, there’s no need to wait in any long lines. And there’s just something special about having the main mouse himself pop up over your shoulder while you’re chowing down on a Mickey waffle!
Each character dining experience focuses on a specific set of characters… for example, the “Fab 5,” Disney princesses, Disney Junior Stars, or Winnie the Pooh and friends.
Disney Dining Plans
For many years, one of the best options for dining at Disney involved adding a Disney Dining Plan to your on-site hotel stay. These plans offered a set number of meal and snack credits per person at a fixed daily cost. During certain low-demand seasons, you could occasionally receive the dining plan at no additional charge as part of a vacation package including a hotel stay and theme park tickets.
Sadly, Disney Dining plans have not been offered since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. We don’t know for sure that they’ll return, but given their popularity we’d be surprised if they didn’t.
Until the dining plan returns, you’ll be paying out of pocket for your food on-site, unless you opt to bring your own food into the parks (and yes, you can get groceries delivered to your hotel).
Now that we have covered the basic elements of your Walt Disney World vacation, it’s time to start thinking about the nitty-gritty details of your trip. Improvising on-the-go can cost you money and lost time while you are at the park, so creating an itinerary will keep your vacation on track.
If your trip to WDW is 4 days or fewer, you will most likely spend each day exploring at least one of Disney’s 4 theme parks. Consider a Park Hopper pass so that you have the ability to jump between parks during the day.
Time is of the essence, so we recommend that you map your route and create an itinerary of high-priority attractions so nothing is overlooked.
If your Disney World vacation is a week or so, consider spending one day at a Disney water park (Blizzard Beach or Typhoon Lagoon), at a non-Disney property (such as SeaWorld, Universal Studios, Busch Gardens), golfing, boating, shopping, or just taking a day off to relax.
Reservations for theme parks and dining should be made well in advance of your trip, so the process of selecting which restaurants and attractions are top priorities should begin as soon as you book your trip (if not before).
As you research your options, make notes to help you formulate your Walt Disney World itinerary.
Here are a few things to consider when making your daily plans:
One of the primary factors for your daily itinerary should be how late the park is open each day you’re there. Park opening and closing times can vary from day-to-day. So you might want to base your daily park choices on which park has the longest hours — or at least make sure you don’t shoehorn yourself into only being able to visit a certain park on the one day during your trip that it closes early. Some parks take longer to fully experience than others, and you don’t want to run out of time.
A great perk of staying at an on-site Disney hotel is having extra time in the parks when the general public is not allowed in. While not all attractions operate during these extended hours, it’s still a great way to get a few extra rides in with typically lower wait times. The previous Extra Magic Hours program has now been replaced by two offerings:
Early Theme Park Entry
Disney Resort hotel Guests (and Guests of other select hotels) may enter the Disney parks 30 minutes earlier than the general public, every day of the week. Each of the four parks offers this perk every day of the week; which park you choose is solely up to you!
Extended Evening Theme Park Hours
Guests at Disney Deluxe Resorts, Deluxe Villa Resorts, and a few other select hotels may also enjoy additional time at specific parks on specific nights. These are usually held on Mondays at EPCOT and Wednesdays at Magic Kingdom, though this can change from time to time. You’ll want to check the latest schedule to verify which dates and parks are available during your trip.
Waiting for Rides/Attractions
It’s an unfortunate fact that a sizable portion of your Disney trip will be spent waiting in line to get on rides or see shows. Fortunately, there are ways to minimize this as much as possible.
When most people think of waiting in line for a ride, they’re thinking of what Disney calls a Standby queue. It’s line waiting in its simplest form; you walk up to an attraction entrance, wait in line for as long as it takes, and then get into the ride vehicle.
Standby wait times can fluctuate wildly throughout the day, often peaking in the mid-afternoon. While you can’t do anything about the length of the line itself, you can game the system a bit by deciding when to enter that line.
For your most important attraction of the day, we suggest doing what frequent visitors call “rope dropping” the park. This means that you are at the park before it opens for the day, enter the park as soon as Guests are allowed in (as soon as they “drop the rope” that is keeping people out), and go directly to the desired attraction so you can ride it with as little wait as possible.
Other tactics to try to avoid the worst of the standby wait times is to go during the afternoon parade, or to go when most people are having lunch/dinner. The Disney Genie section of the My Disney Experience app will also show you a forecast of wait times for each hour of the day so you can better plan your arrival time to minimize waits.
And, while it won’t necessarily help you avoid an extended wait time, there’s something to be said for doing all of the rides that have completely-outdoor waiting lines early or late in the day; that way, when it’s miserably hot/steamy outside during the afternoon hours, you can hide away from the midday sun by experiencing the rides with indoor air-conditioned queues. These rides are also less likely to close during afternoon thunderstorms.
If your trip happens to occur in the months immediately following the opening of a highly-anticipated attraction (such as a new roller coaster), you’ll likely find that you can’t simply go stand in line for that ride. Instead, you might have to use something called a virtual queue.
It’s exactly what it sounds like — rather than physically standing in line, your spot in line is held virtually via the My Disney Experience app.
A virtual queue is both good news and bad news for your itinerary planning.
The good news: Historically, people have spent as much as five or six hours (!) waiting in line for a new ride. That’s not the case with virtual queuing. Your wait might technically still be that long, but you don’t have to spend that time actually waiting in a line. You’re instead free to go have plenty of other fun elsewhere in the park during that time, and then come back when it’s time to ride.
The bad news: Competition to grab a spot in the virtual queue can be fierce. Spaces open up daily at 7AM and again at 1PM. On dates when Extended Evening Theme Park Hours are offered for select Resort Guests, another round of queuing begins at 6PM. On the busiest days, all available slots can be claimed within seconds of being released. To give yourself the best possible chance of snagging a spot, read Disney’s extensive instructions ahead of time so you know exactly what to do at 7AM on the day you wish to visit.
Priority Attraction Entrance (Disney Genie+ and Lightning Lane)
Many rides and experiences in the parks have a special Lightning Lane entrance which allows you to bypass the regular line and board more quickly. If you’ve been to Disney in the past, you might remember these entrances having been previously called FastPass or FastPass+. The Lightning Lane concept is still mostly the same, but there’s one big difference: you now must pay to enter the Lightning Lane.
Most rides which have a Lightning Lane entrance are packaged together into a bundled service called Genie+. For a combined fee of approximately $15-$30 (varies based on date and demand) per person per day, Genie Plus lets guests make reservations to use the Lightning Lane entrance at more than 40 attractions throughout the parks. Guests make their first Lightning Lane reservation on the morning of their visit and then make additional ride reservations, one at a time, for the remainder of the day (subject to availability). Disney says this service will usually help you experience a quicker load time on 2-3 attractions on a busy day (maybe more on less-crowded days), which can help save you hours of waiting in line.
Note: The paid Genie+ service should not be confused with the basic Disney Genie service, which is an itinerary suggestion service inside the My Disney Experience app. Disney Genie provides suggestions of what to do based on wait times and your interests. Genie+ saves you time waiting in line by letting you instead select a time to return to ride.
Individual Lightning Lane entry
The Lightning Lane entrances at the most popular attractions in each park are not included in Genie+ and are instead sold separately. You’ll be able to purchase one entrance per day for each ride offering this individual entry service. The cost usually ranges from $10-$20 per ride and varies based on the attraction, date, and availability.
If a ride’s Lightning Lane is sold under this individual pricing structure, it will not be included in the Genie+ package offering.
You can’t actually book your Lightning Lane entrances in advance — they’re available for purchase only on the day of your visit — but you’ll still want to research them in advance to include in your daily itinerary.
Disability Access Service
A special service is provided to assist Guests who have a condition that interferes with their ability to wait in line. This offering, called the Disability Access Service (DAS), assigns return times so Guests don’t need to be physically present in the attraction line (but still experience a similar length of wait as those who are waiting in line).
There’s an important distinction when understanding DAS: qualifying is based on a guest’s ability to wait in line, not their ability to stand in line. Most attraction lines are wheelchair accessible, so a wheelchair alone is unlikely to qualify someone to use DAS. There’s no official list of disabilities which automatically qualify, but some which may qualify include ADHD, autism, or anxiety. Each decision is made on an individual basis, and Disney alone has sole authority to grant or deny DAS to a Guest.
This is a highly-nuanced topic that we can’t completely cover in just a few sentences. We suggest you read our extensive guide to the Disability Access Service for further details.
Timing Your Meals
Your itinerary should include a solid plan on when you’re going to eat your meals.
Unless you have breakfast reservations for an in-park restaurant, we do NOT recommend that you have breakfast in the park. You’ll likely be missing out on some of the lowest ride wait times of the day if you’re off getting food right after the park opens. Have breakfast at your hotel’s restaurant before heading to the park (the restaurants open early enough to allow this without missing park opening), or even just have bagels or cereal in your room and opt for an early lunch.
Speaking of an early lunch, having your meals during an off-peak time is a great way to avoid wasting time waiting in long lines at counter-service restaurants. If you have lunch at noon and dinner at 6PM, you’ll quickly notice that pretty much everyone else in the park had the same idea. Not only will there be longer waits in line (and for your food to be prepared), but you might even have to “hover” a bit to find an empty table. If you do have to dine during the busiest hours, take full advantage of mobile ordering within the My Disney Experience app whenever you can.
Of course, should you have dining reservations at a table service restaurant for lunch or dinner, your time for that meal is set and you just need to plug it into your daily itinerary.
Planning When to Stop and When to Go, Go, Go
With the prospect of a full vacation in front of you, it’s easy to either over or under do it.
Yes, you’re on vacation, so it’s tempting to sleep in. But doing so will put you a step behind everyone else in the park, meaning you’re at the mercy of higher crowds and longer lines. Waking up early and getting to the parks right away goes a long way toward starting the day right.
On the other hand, if you plan to go nonstop from morning to night seven days in a row, you’re going to crash midweek and have a miserable time. You’ll probably end up losing more time due to the inevitable meltdown than if you had just planned to take some downtime along the way.
If you’re staying on-site, you can easily go back to your hotel for a midday nap or dip in the pool. Or, better yet, give yourself at least one “day off” during your trip. Relax at the hotel, go play a round of golf, sit on the lakeside “beach” at some resorts, or have a laidback day at Disney Springs (go shopping, have a meal, take a balloon ride, or see a movie).
Giving some thought now to periods of activity and periods of rest will help make sure your vacation doesn’t veer off track.
Our Top Tips for Disney World Itinerary Planning
With all of the above in mind, it’s really going to come down to a matter of personal preference. Once you have a good handle on all of the things to do, see, eat, and experience at Disney World — what do you want to do each day?
Only you can answer that question. But here are a few of our favorites to consider when planning your daily itinerary:
Some of the most popular rides for Lightning Lane passes and Disney Genie+ are:
- Magic Kingdom – Seven Dwarfs Mine Train; Space Mountain
- Epcot – Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind; Frozen Ever After; Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure
- Hollywood Studios – Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run; Rise of the Resistance; Slinky Dog Dash; Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway
- Animal Kingdom – Pandora’s Na’vi River Journey; Avatar Flight of Passage; Expedition Everest
Some of the other most popular attractions at each of the four Walt Disney World theme parks include:
- Magic Kingdom – Haunted Mansion; Magic Carpets of Aladdin; Pirates of the Caribbean; Splash Mountain (currently closed)
- Epcot – the pavilions of Epcot World Showcase; Mission: Space; Test Track; Spaceship Earth; Soarin’; Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind
- Animal Kingdom – Expedition Everest; Jungle Cruise; Kali River Rapids; Kilimanjaro Safaris
- Hollywood Studio – Fantasmic; Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster; Toy Story Midway Mania; Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
Some of our favorite WDW restaurants include:
- Be Our Guest Restaurant, Magic Kingdom – This ornate French eatery with a Beauty & the Beast theme offers fixed-price dining.
- California Grill, Disney’s Contemporary Resort – Contemporary Resort’s premier restaurant is a great spot to watch the fireworks and offers breathtaking views of the park.
- Chef Mickey’s, Disney’s Contemporary Resort – Popular breakfast & dinner buffet restaurant with special visits from Mickey and friends.
- Cinderella’s Royal Table, Magic Kingdom – This Cinderella-themed eatery is set in a room that resembles a medieval castle’s banquet hall.
- Flame Tree Barbeque, Animal Kingdom – Tasty BBQ featuring a relaxing outdoor pavilion with amazing views of Animal Kingdom. And it’s quick-service, so no need for a reservation!
- Hollywood Brown Derby, Disney’s Hollywood Studios – Retro dining establishment with fantastic caricatures of old-time celebrities on the wall.
- Le Cellier, Canada Pavilion at World Showcase, Epcot – Steaks are a specialty at this top-notch table service dining establishment.
- ‘Ohana, Polynesian Village Resort – All-you-can-eat, American-style (with a Polynesian twist) buffet for breakfast and dinner.
- Teppan Edo, Japan Pavilion at World Showcase, Epcot – Guests are seated around the teppanyaki grills as skilled chefs prepare your meal in front of you.
- The Boathouse Restaurant, The Landing, Disney Springs – Upscale waterfront dining experience featuring steaks and seafood, Amphicar tours, Italian water
taxi tours, and live music.
- Via Napoli, Italy Pavilion at World Showcase, Epcot – Amazing pizza! Need we say more?
Depending on the duration of your Walt Disney World vacation, you will most likely pack lots of items to take with you. Let’s look at some of the things you should include in your WDW packing list.
Luggage / Backpacks for Disney
First and foremost, make sure your luggage/backpacks are in tip-top shape for the journey, and of adequate size to hold your travel essentials.
Many families prefer to bring a backpack with them into a Disney World park so they have everything with them. It’s handy to have the essentials (or even a snack) — just remember not to overdo it! Everything you bring in with you has to be hauled around all day, stowed away for rides, or left in a rented locker at the front of the park.
Some people prefer to skip the backpacks all together and use a smaller pack that goes around the waist. While not necessarily the height of fashion, they certainly do the job and are much easier to work with when it comes to boarding ride vehicles.
This tip might sound odd, but hear us out.
Consider purchasing some of your Disney World souvenirs before your departure.
Purchasing items beforehand – like t-shirts, trading pins and lanyards, Disney autograph books, games and toys, and Mickey Mouse Ears hats – can save you money and time spent shopping for these items at the park. Plus, you will have these Disney souvenir items ready to use as soon as your flight touches down in Orlando.
And finally, it’s time to think about which clothing items, documents, toiletries, medications, electronics, swimwear, baby items, food and snacks, and other accessories you will need to pack.
From our experience, you will arrive at Disney World – thinking you have packed everything you will need for your trip – only to discover that you left an important item or two at home.
For your convenience, we have created a suggested Disney World Packing List to ensure that nothing is overlooked during the packing process.
Print this list and check items off as you pack. We have also included a few recommended items on our Packing List.
These include links to inexpensive ponchos, comfortable shoes, external batteries, USB wall chargers, and Disney beach towels, as well as water bottles and Frogg Toggs Chilly Pads for those warm days at Disney World.
Final Thoughts on How To Plan a Disney Vacation
We hope our Ultimate Guide to Walt Disney World Vacation Planning will get you on the right path to planning, prioritizing, and booking your magical vacation to Disney World. It’s a lot of information, but with enough research and planning, you’ll have a magical trip!
We should point out that this guide is mostly geared towards Walt Disney World in Florida, but many of the basic ideas still apply to other Disney vacations. If you’re headed to Disneyland in California, you’ll also want to check out our Disneyland vs Disney World, Disneyland Resort Map, and Disneyland Crowd Calendar pages. We also offer extensive resources for those planning trips with Disney Cruise Line (including a complete guide to planning your first Disney Cruise), as well as resources on Adventures by Disney.
Contact a Disney Travel Planner to Book Your Disney World Trip
As you’ve seen in this article, there is a LOT that goes into planning a Disney vacation. Why not call in a professional to help?
The Authorized Disney Vacation Planners at The Vacationeer can plan your trip for you and take care of all of your reservations, all at no additional charge. You won’t pay a penny more than if you’d have booked it yourself — and you might even pay less!
Their team of 90+ Disney fanatics know all the tips and tricks for hotels, dining, park tickets, and more… and can even apply new discounts to your trip as they’re announced, after your trip is booked!
There’s never any obligation to book and their services are free, so there’s nothing to lose by contacting them for a quote.