How to Plan a Disney Vacation
Discover the 9 Simple Steps to Planning a Disney Vacation
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 Fastpass+, Advanced Dining Reservations, My Disney Experience, Magic Bands, Transportation, Extra Magic Hours, etc. There’s so much to know, and this guide will be your go-to resource.
Planning a Disney vacation can feel like a daunting task, especially for first-time guests. Be aware that the properties of Walt Disney World cover around 47 square miles, which is almost twice the size of Manhattan!
There are so many engaging activities, exciting attractions, magical details, and wonderful restaurants and resorts that 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.
So how do you even begin to prepare for a Disney vacation?
The simple answer is this: start your research well in advance of booking your trip, formulate a general plan, book your trip, then create a detailed itinerary for each day at the park. Without a daily itinerary and at least some knowledge of the park, Disney World can be a confusing and overwhelming place. Informed and organized vacationers are less stressed, save more money, and have more fun!
Another great option is to work with a professional Disney Travel Agent. As you may have seen in our Disney Travel Planners page, we recommend the agents at The Vacationeer Travel Agency. Visit them at https://thevacationeer.com.
Fortunately, there are lots of Disney World resources online these days, so getting up to speed with the ins and outs of the park is well within your reach.
Even so, with all the information out there, narrowing down these search results to find the most relevant information can be a challenge. Therefore, MagicGuides has created the 9 Steps to Planning a Walt Disney World Vacation in an effort to condense the most relevant information into one comprehensive guide.
Not only will being organized well in advance of your trip save you money and reduce your level of stress as your departure nears, but it will also secure your spot at popular resorts, attractions, and dining establishments.
Now, let’s first summarize some general Disney World information.
Before you can get down to the nitty-gritty of planning a Disney vacation, you really need to know the lingo. Below we have defined some of the terms and concepts you are bound to encounter as you research and book your trip to Disney World.
Here are 8 key things you should know before going to Disney World:
- Walt Disney World has 4 major theme parks: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios*
- Disney World has 2 water parks: Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon*
- There are over 20 large resorts owned and operated by Walt Disney World on the resort’s grounds
- WDW operates 5 golf courses and 2 mini-golf courses
- There are several lakes on Walt Disney World property offering boating, fishing, and water sporting opportunities
- The main dinner shows at Walt Disney World are: Mickey’s Backyard BBQ, Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue, and Disney’s Spirit of Aloha Show
- Disney’s BoardWalk is considered the main entertainment district
- Disney Springs is the largest shopping and dining district at Disney World
There are two types of resorts/hotels available to Walt Disney World guests: on-site (official Disney-owned resorts located within the park) and off-site (non-Disney resorts located outside of the park).*
My Disney Experience is the App & Website where registered guests can update their profiles, view reservations and vacation packages, plan itineraries, see Disney PhotoPass photos, and add/ remove people from friends and family lists.
MagicBands are colorful wristbands which act as an all-in-one device to effortlessly connect you to the vacation choices you made with My Disney Experience.
They are used to enter the parks, unlock your Disney Resort hotel room, buy food and merchandise, and more.
One of the perks to staying at certain Walt Disney World hotels is Extra Magic Hours. This benefit allows registered guests (of select Walt Disney World Resort hotels) to experience extended hours beyond standard operating hours.
For each day, Disney chooses one of its theme parks to open one hour early or remain open up to 2 hours after closing time.
Disney Water Parks also offer Extra Magic Hours during select times of the year.
The clear benefit is extra time in the park but also fewer crowds to contend with. Off-site guests (those staying at non-Disney resorts) are not eligible for this benefit.
FastPass+ is a complimentary (free) benefit you will receive with the purchase of any park admission or Annual Pass. Walt Disney World ticket holders will each receive 3 FastPass+ selections for a single park (per day). This service allows you to reserve access (skip the lines) at attractions of your choosing at a specific time of your choosing.
Depending on availability, additional FastPass+ selections may be available to guests once their 3 selections have been used. Advanced FastPast+ reservations may be made up to 60 days for on-site guests and 30 days of off-site guests.
With Advance Dining Reservations (ADRs). you are able to secure your table at some of Disney’s most popular restaurants. On-site resort guests (those staying on WDW properties) can make up to 10 days ADRs at the 180-day mark (7 am EST), while off-site guests must make their ADRs beginning at the 180-day mark for each day they are at the park.
Timeline: How to Plan a Disney Vacation
Here is the timeline of the things you should consider prior to arriving at Walt Disney World.
Now let’s delve a little deeper with our 9 Steps to Planning a Walt Disney World Vacation. We have arranged these steps in roughly the order in which you should consider them.
Once you’ve made the decision to book a Walt Disney World vacation, then the next step is deciding which time of year to go.
The biggest considerations for choosing when to visit are promotions, festivals, crowd sizes, and weather.
Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of each consideration.
During their slower seasons, Disney World offers several promotions to lure guests to the park.
By far, the largest and most popular promotion Disney offers is the Free Dining promotion. For select dates in the fall and winter (usually August – December), Walt Disney World offers this free dining promotion to guests who book vacation packages with non-discounted resort hotels and non-discounted park tickets. Each member of the booked party is eligible for Free Dining.
There are a few caveats.
- First, the promotion sells out quickly because, well, who doesn’t like free food? So act quickly if this promotion appeals to you.
- Secondly, a 3-night minimum stay is required (with a maximum of a 14-night stay). This means that you are not eligible for purchasing discounted WDW tickets from authorized resellers (so do the math to determine which promotion or discount will save you the most money in the long run).
- Next, there are room exclusions for the promotion. The following do not qualify: All-Star Movies, Art of Animation Little Mermaid Rooms, Bay Lake Tower, Fort Wilderness campsites, Port Orleans Resort French Quarter, all 3-bedroom Villas, Villas at Disney’s Grand Floridian, and standard rooms & bungalows at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort. Port Orleans Resort Riverside is eligible, but only for select dates.
- And lastly, guests who are participating in the promotion are required to purchase tickets that include either the Park Hopper Plus option, or a 2-day (or more) Park Hopper.
So, while the Free Dining plan is a wonderful promotion, be sure that it makes financial sense, includes menu items to your liking, and aligns with your particular Walt Disney World vacation plans.
The Disney Travel Agents at The Vacationeer stay up to date on all the current promotions and can add them to your reservation if they will save you money, even after booking. Click HERE for a free, no-obligation price quote.
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 Flower & Garden Festival during the month of May, most of our favorite seasonal events take place during the Fall and Winter months.
Epcot hosts The Food & Wine Festival in September and October, 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 Jingle Bell, Jingle Bam (Hollywood Studios).
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.
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 sideways and in the restaurants.
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.
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.
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.
Our favorite seasons at Walt Disney World are probably 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.
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 4 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 entail. But with so much to see and experience, a day or 2 won’t even scratch the surface of what Walt Disney World has to offer.
How Long Do Most People Stay at Disney World?
Many guests devote one full day to each of the four Disney World theme parks. Since Epcot is really two theme parks in one (Future World and World Showcase), you could really spend two days at Epcot. Additional days can be spent re-visiting one of the parks, going to a Disney water park, or other various activities, inside or outside of the park.
But the bottom line is, if your objective is to experience most attractions, shows, parades, etc., you really need to provide yourself with adequate time/days explore all facets of each park.
Many guests like to spend a day or two at other (non-Disney) Orlando-area attractions – such as Universal Studios, Busch Garden, and SeaWorld. Other guests set aside a day or two for golfing, boating, or to simply relax.
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, for example, because you won’t. However, 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.
Once you have determined when you will go to Walt Disney World, and for how long, it’s now time to start considering how you will get to the park.
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. If you plan on driving your own car to Disney World, be sure to print out good maps or have a GPS device ready to go. 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 ITA Software by Google. This search engine won’t allow you to book through their website, but it’s regarded as the most robust search engine 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.
Ways To Save at 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.
There are two options for lodging at Walt Disney World. You can either stay at an official Disney-owned on-site resort, or at a nearby (non-Disney) off-site resort. Let’s look at the advantages/disadvantages of each type of resort hotel.
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 in Disney magic, 24/7.
Since all resort guests are on Disney World property, you will be in close proximity to all the parks and have direct access to monorails, boats, and buses.
On-site guests also receive special perks which off-site guests do not. These include free transfers to and from the airport (via Disney Magical Express), Extra Magic Hours, and the ability to book FastPass+ selections (and, in most cases, Advanced Dining Reservations) before the off-site guests.
There are 3 main tiers of on-site Disney Resorts: Value, Moderate, and Deluxe. There’s also a Deluxe Villa tier, which is essentially a WDW timeshare.
The only major disadvantage of staying at a 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.
Off-Site Resorts (non-Disney)
Non-Disney off-site resorts compete with on-site Disney Resorts.
Most of these properties are further away from the park and do not have direct access to the monorail. Despite this, many off-site resorts are still quite close to the park, with some – in fact – situated on Disney- owned land.
While you won’t enjoy the same perks as on-site guests, these off-site properties are generally very nice.
Most 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 just recommended that you explore both options in weighing the pros and cons of 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-property.
It’s possible that you may end up spending more on park tickets than in your hotel room, so 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.
As a general rule, always purchase tickets through an authorized seller/reseller and buy your tickets well in advance of your departure. This will lock-in the current rate of ticket prices and shield you from the inevitable price hikes which occur at least once every year. Unused tickets do not expire, so there is really no downside to buying your tickets well in advance, assuming you are committed to going to Disney World in the foreseeable future.
Another advantage of buying your tickets at least a few months before your trip is that you can start booking your FastPass+ reservations when your window opens (60 days in advance for on-site guests, 30 days in advance for off-site guests).
As far as pricing advantages go, the longer the duration of your park tickets, the less each ticket costs per day. As Disney states, “the longer you play, the less you pay per day.”
Single-day tickets are pricey (even more pricey during holidays, school vacations, and weekends), whereas multi-day tickets become much cheaper by the day. After 3 days, the cost of additional days substantially decreases with each additional day.
Whatever you do, don’t wait to buy tickets at the gate, and never buy your tickets via eBay, Craigslist, or another unauthorized reseller.
Buy early, buy smart, and buy for as many days as your time and budget will allow!
When you buy a standard ticket to a Disney World theme park, the ticket is good only for that specific park.
The Disney Magic Your Way Park Hopper allows guests entry to more than one theme park per day. This means that you could theoretically spend a few hours in each park – Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios – during the same day.
We especially love the Park Hopper for spending half the day at one theme park, then spending the evenings at Epcot to take advantage of the wonderful dining options at World Showcase.
Park Hopper tickets are more expensive than standard park tickets, but they allow for much more flexibility during the day.
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!
If this is your first trip to Disney World, you may be surprised by all the world-class, fining-dining experiences the park offers.
Gone are the days when Disney was known as burgers and kid’s meal type of destination.
Sure, there are plenty of quick-service restaurants and 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, others are geared towards families or offer formal dining experiences.
All-you-can-eat buffets are popular, as are ethnic 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.
With over 140 restaurants on Disney World property, there is really something for everyone’s taste buds at Walt Disney World!
If you plan on dining at table-service restaurants during your vacation (recommended!), Disney allows you to make dining reservations up to 180 days in advance. This is another example of “the early bird catches the worm,” as slots during prime hours go quickly, especially at popular dining locations like Cinderella’s Royal Table and Chef Mickeys.
Be sure to consult our Walt Disney World Crowd Calendar to stay on top of when your 180-day ADRs window opens.
Disney Dining Plans
Guests should consider the Disney Dining Plan to see if its right for them. The Disney Dining Plan must be purchased as part of a Magic Your Way package, which includes your Disney Resort stay, Disney park tickets, and the Dining Plan. Resort guests may also book by using their Disney Vacation Club (DVC) points. Therefore, if you are staying off-property, you will not be eligible for this perk.
The Disney Dining Plan has different tiers and price points, so you really need to review the current rates to see if you will actually save money by utilizing this perk and if the food items included in the plan will accommodate your family’s taste buds.
Some people find that they can save more money – and have more flexibility in their food options – without the plan, while others find a plan that is perfectly suited to their needs.
Spend some time reviewing the details of each plan and weighing the pros/cons before locking yourself into anything. We have created the Disney World Dining Plan Calculator to help you decide which plan is right for you.
As we referenced before, Disney’s Free Dining Plan is a promotion Walt Disney World offers every year for select dates during the less crowded fall weeks. Guests must book vacation packages with non-discounted resort hotels and park tickets to be eligible.
Besides not being able to purchase your tickets and lodging at discounted rates, other caveats include the limited availability of time slots (non-vacation weeks), the fact that the promotion sells out quickly, and the exclusion of certain resorts.
With that said, this is Disney’s most popular promotion every year for a reason, and we recommend taking advantage of it if your schedule allows.
Orlando International Airport (MCO) is about 20 miles from Walt Disney World. If you are flying to Disney, you must arrange for transportation to your hotel once you have landed.
Some guests opt to rent a car for the duration of their stay in Orlando. This can be easily accomplished by booking a rental car to be picked up at the airport. Off-site resort guests often take taxis (expensive) or Uber/Lyft (less expensive) directly to their hotel.
One of our favorite perks of staying at an on-site Disney Resort is the Disney Magical Express service.
Guests who have booked a room at an official Walt Disney World Resort are eligible for this complimentary (free) service, which provides transportation to and from the Orlando International Airport and your Disney Resort.
Prior to arrival, you will be mailed Disney Magical Express documents with luggage tags and transportation information.
Upon arrival at the Orlando International Airport, guests should head to the Disney Welcome Center, which is located on the Level One/B side of the airport.
The next available shuttle will transport you to your hotel.
Now that we have covered the basic steps for planning 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 less, you will most likely spend each day exploring 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 (like SeaWorld, Universal Studios, Busch Gardens), golfing, boating, shopping, or just taking a day off to relax.
Since Advanced Dining Reservations (ADRs) and FastPass+ selection should (must) be made well in advance of your trip, 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 you begin researching WDW attractions:
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. If not, then we have done the leg-work for you by creating a Best Backpacks for Disney World page.
Our list includes a variety of colorful Disney-themed backpacks for kids, daypacks for in-park use, as well as some larger travel backpacks for adults.
Next, consider purchasing some of your Disney World souvenirs before your departure.
This may sound odd, but 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.
See our Best Disney World Souvenirs page for our recommendations.
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 the 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.
Well, there you have it. 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.
Don’t forget.: The best, and often least expensive, way to plan the ultimate Disney Vacation is to put your trip in the hands of professionals, consider contacting our friends at The Vacationeer. Their services are always free and they’ll help you create the vacation of a lifetime.
Visit them at http://thevacationeer.com!