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Walt Disney World Vacation Planning 101

Starting your Disney World Vacation planning is full of joyful anticipation and excitement. You begin dreaming of exploring this magical world! Meeting characters, hitting every attraction, huddling together with your family in the glow of fireworks, and making memories to last a lifetime. As you navigate your way through the vast array of choices to be made for your dream trip to become a reality, your head begins to spin. The number of decisions and options is mind-boggling.  Going to Disney is not like going to any old regular amusement park for the day. There’s a reason they call it Walt Disney WORLD!

Why Should You Listen to Me?

I have visited Walt Disney World numerous times throughout my life. No two trips were ever the same. I have been there as a kid, a teenager, with my future husband and in-laws , as a mother of toddlers, a family of 6, a mother of teenagers, solo, and with extended family.  Other than a few obvious exceptions, I have done the planning for most of these trips myself. I am a Disney fanatic and enjoy spending hours researching all the options about as much as I love going! Learn more about my Disney World obsession on my about me page.

My love for going to Walt Disney World runs deep. To me, it offers an opportunity to immerse yourself and your family in a world of magic and beauty that is hard to find anywhere else. It breaks my heart when people return from their time at Disney World and say that they will never go back. I am convinced that with good planning, realistic expectations, and some pixie dust everyone can find the magic and wonder of Walt Disney World.

Walt Disney World Planning

Where to Begin

You can find lots of Walt Disney World planning guides all over the internet. Most of them will start with a timeline of when to start booking. First your resort, then your dining, planning park days and Fastpasses. This all seems reasonable but there is so much more to making the right choices for YOUR trip. You have to know what kind of trip you want to have before planning your trip!

What Kind Of Trip Are You Taking?

What the heck do I mean? This seems like an odd question but the kind of trip you are taking should guide all of the choices you will make. Every trip cannot be planned the same way. Considering the needs and expectations of your party is crucial. You have to know what kind of trip you want in order to make it all that you are dreaming of. Let me give you some examples of what I mean.

Kinds of trips:

  • Romantic Couples Trip
  • Large Extended Family Trip
  • First Time Family Trip with Babies
  • We Are Only Going Once Trip – jam it all in (I will need a vacation from my vacation)
  • We will Be Back Trip – we want to have great experiences at a relaxed pace
  • We Have Been There Done That Trip – looking for new experiences without missing your favorites
  •  Keeping the Non-Disney, Non-Crowd loving Person Happy Trip
  • Celebration Trip – bring on the extra special experience
  • I Still Want to Send My Kids To College Trip – we want to take our family to Disney but not pay for it for the rest of our lives
  • My Kids Can Pay For Their Own College Trip – let’s break the bank and live big! (VIP tour? Oh yeah!)
  • Bucket List Trip – Do a Run Disney Event and Stay at the Polynesian (Yes, this is mine!)

You will probably have to take some time to think about this and it is worth doing. Consider who you are traveling with? What are their ages, experience with Disney, daily schedules, mobility? Will you need to accommodate naps or mobility issues? If you are traveling with toddlers and/or grandparents you probably should not plan 4 parks in 4 days sun up to sun down kind of trip. If you are traveling with a bunch of teenagers that’s a different story. Considering the kind of trip you want will help determine your priorities and guide you in the million choices you will have to make.

Every trip is unique and should be planned accordingly.


View of the Grand Floridian Resort
Magic Kingdom Parade
Akershus Royal Banquet Hall

Walt Disney World Planning


Part 1

When, Where and How Long

Now that you have taken the time to consider the kind of trip you are taking you can begin to make the 3 big decisions–when, where and what.

When

 Obviously, things like school, work, and holidays will be the biggest factor in deciding when you can take your vacation. But if you have some flexibility there are things to consider when choosing your dates. 

Weather – This is very unpredictable in Florida. But there are general assumptions you can make. May-September will be HOT and a little rainier. October-April will be cooler and dryer.

Crowds – Does anyone in your party not do well with crowds? If you know that crowds are something you want to try to avoid as much as possible, some careful planning can make that possible. If you have the flexibility. 

Budget – When you choose to go can make a big difference for what your trip will cost. Naturally, if you are going over a holiday break prepare to pay premium prices. But, if you can pick a slower time to go on vacation you will save a little money. 

Special Events – There are several special events at Disney throughout the year. These events may be things that you want to avoid or things you want to attend. They will also affect crowd levels. 

where

I know you are going to Walt Disney World 🙂 So now the big question is where are you going to stay. There are so many options! It’s a daunting task. Your choices include staying at a Disney value, moderate, deluxe or DVC property, an off-site hotel or a rental. Based on the kind of trip you are taking, there are certain things to consider. Is having a conveniently located resort worth the extra expense? Are you willing to give up something like the dining plan or a character meal to make that fit in your budget? Or are you willing to stay off site to have more space and stay in budget? Where you stay will influence the kind of trip you ultimately have.

Budget – Of course, this will likely be what ultimately drives your final decision. You should have a good idea of what you are willing to spend on accommodations, then find what works best for you within that budget. 

Convenience – Sticking to your budget is great and is the responsible, adult thing to do. However, you may decide that the convenience of staying at a monorail resort is worth the extra bucks. Or, it may be more convenient for your family to have a full kitchen so a villa or home rental would be a better option for you. Determining your priorities will help guide you in choosing accommodations that are most convenient for your family. 

Party size – If you have a party of 4-5, you have lots of options when it comes to accommodations. A party of 6 or more gets a little more difficult. If you want to stay on Disney property with a large party you may have to make some compromises. A family suite at Art of Animation is the less expensive option but can still be a tight fit for a party of 6. The next option is a villa at a moderate or deluxe resort but is definitely more expensive.

Transportation – This can really be a big factor. You will be going between your resort and parks and restaurants at least a couple of times a day.  If you are not renting a vehicle and plan to rely solely on Disney transportation then you probably want to stay on property. Many off-site properties offer shuttle service to Disney also but they are not very convenient. Most only run a few times a day and your park hours may be limited due to shuttle times. Uber and Lyft are also an option.  Disney offers free bus, monorail, boat, and Skyliner transportation throughout all of Walt Disney World. You don’t even have to be a resort guest to use it. However, Disney transportation is not without its faults.

Here are a couple of post to help you choose the right Disney hotel for your vacation.


How Long

Unfortunately, the realities of life such as schedules and budget will probably dictate this for you. I really prefer at least a week. Typically you will use 1-2 days for traveling and  a non-park day in the middle of your trip is a must for keeping your sanity. So, with a week-long trip, this leaves you with 4 full days for parks. No matter how long you stay you will not see everything. You may want to consider doing a water park day or a day at Disney Springs too. 

Some families do 3-day trips and others do 14-day trips. Do what works best for you. Even if this is the only trip you plan to take to Walt Disney World you really do not need to see everything. Savor and enjoy the experiences you have. This is about making memories that last a lifetime. Even if you only went to one park for one day you can experience the wonder and excitement found only at the most magical place on earth. 

Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party
Very old Meet and Greet location with Mickey Mouse!
Between the Swan and Dolphin hotels

I can’t help sharing pictures of our past Disney World vacations!

Walt Disney World Vacation Planning

Part 2


Daily Schedule

Sadly, it has become mandatory that you plan and schedule out most of your time at Walt Disney World. And you should do this 180 days before your trip. Yes, exactly 180 days. You see if you have your heart set on doing a character meal or eating at a sit down restaurant in general you need to make Advanced Dining Reservations (ADR’s). 

To make ADR’s you will need to know what parks you plan on going to on what days. So, you should start making a daily schedule ASAP. 

Again, this is also something that is very personal and specific to your trip. Some people will want all meal times planned out and reservations made for all of them. While other people are comfortable with eating quick service meals whenever they are ready to eat with no pre-planning. Most of us will fall somewhere in the middle. My family generally make 2-3 dining reservations for our entire trip. 

Watch my YouTube video for more Disney World vacation planning strategies.

All the Extras

I was all ready to start talking about park tickets with you but we are not still not ready for that. Before deciding how many days you need park tickets for there are a few more things to consider. This includes park hours, any extra events and special experiences that you may want to add. 

You can check park hours HERE.

Here is a short list of some of the extra activities and events you might want to add to your agenda:

Toy Story Land Early Morning Magic
Magic Kingdom fireworks
Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party Fireworks

↓↓↓↓↓↓↓Check this out for even more things you may want to add to your schedule!↓↓↓↓↓↓↓

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It’s best to decide if you are adding any of these events to your schedule before buying park tickets or scheduling dining. (We will talk about dining reservations in a minute) 

One example is Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. Tickets to these parties allow you to enter the Magic Kingdom at 4:00. The party typically lasts till 12:00 am. A separate park ticket for that day is not necessary. Trust me, 4:00-midnight will be more than enough time in the park for one day.

Disney Springs is another location where you might want to plan some time for. This is Disney’s outdoor dining, shopping, and entertainment complex (kind of like the parks without the rides and cost of admission) There are also two waterparks, Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. More options to consider when planning your itinerary.

Park Tickets

Now that you have an idea of what you want your daily schedule to look like it’s time to purchase your park tickets. There are 4 separate parks at Walt Disney World, Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios. Look at what each park has to offer and determine which ones you want to visit. You should plan at least one whole day for each park. Magic Kingdom and Epcot can both require two days if you want to see the majority of the park. Depending on how long you are staying you may find that you can not make it to all 4 parks. That’s okay!! Remember to focus on the experiences you are having and the making of memories. That is way more important than running your family ragged and making everyone miserable to see all the things.

As I mentioned above, it is best to have a break from parks sometime during your trip. There are a lot of things to do outside of the parks like golf, water parks, Disney Spring. You do not need a park ticket for every day of your trip. And having time to relax at your resort will be just what you need after a couple of park days.

You can look at the park ticket options here.

This Disney Discount Tickets post will teach you all about where to buy discounted Disney tickets and how to save up money for your Disney World Vacation.

Dining

There are many options when it comes to getting your people fed at Disney World. The time and money you spend on eating can be significant, so having a plan in place is important. Do you like having leisurely, sit down meals once or twice a day or do you prefer to eat on the go? Is eating on a budget a priority or are you a foodie who wants to experience all the unique dining options at Disney? 

My family is picky and we are not big eaters. Spending money on table service meals was not something we did very often. Generally we did one or two character meals per trip. The rest of the time we would eat quick service meals and eat in our room. A good combination of sit down meals and on the go eating works best. Knowing your dining priorities will simplify your planning.

Disney offers dining plans. This a way to pay for your dining before your trip.  Having a dining plan can be great for budgeting and convenience but it has it’s pitfalls too. When the plan is used wisely it can save you a bit of money depending on where you will be eating. Disney also offers a promotion for free dining on occasion. At first glance a free dining plans sounds like a no brainer. But there pros and cons to going during a promotion and it is not always the best way to save money. I will have a separate post about dining plans soon.

Dining at Sci-Fi Theater Restaurant-Walt Disney World vacation planning
Sci-Fi Theater Restaurant at Hollywood Studios

Mickey Mouse Chocolate Chip Cookie
Mickey Mouse Chocolate Chip Cookie
WARNING-melts very quickly in the hot sun!

Bon Voyage Breakfast

Disney Terminology

For some weird reason Disney likes to give different events similar names to confuse us all. They also enjoy giving rides, resorts and restaurants names that are a million miles long! This has caused Disney partons to devise acronyms for things which only adds to the confusion. Learning the Disney lingo will make planning so much easier : )

Watch for my upcoming post on understanding Disney terminology.

Let’s Get Planning!

Now that you know the basic steps you need to take for planning your Walt Disney World vacation, let the planning begin!! Don’t get overwhelmed! Planning is essential for having a magical vacation BUT do you really want to know the KEY to unlock the vacation you are dreaming of? Be prepared to scrap your plan at a moment’s notice. I know, why would you go through all of this work if you are not going to follow your plan? Because sometimes it is just better to go with the flow or do whatever is necessary to keep your tribe happy. Trust me, almost everyone you are taking will have a breakdown at some point during your trip. That you can plan on. So sometimes it will be in the best interest of your family to skip fireworks, grab some food, and get to bed early. And that is okay. I promise, missing something that you were planning on will not ruin your trip. Forcing everyone to stay up too late when they are tired and hungry is more likely to put a damper on things than just letting it go!

Let me know if I can help with any trip planning advice! It’s my favorite thing to do!

4 Real Disney Mom

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