Visiting a Disney park can be an overwhelming experience but it doesn’t have to be. There are hundreds of different resources available to help you plan your Disney vacation. Why should you choose this one? I could give you a bunch of numbers (like how we’re only a short five hour drive from Walt Disney World and have visited more than 25 times in less than 10 years or how I’ve planned multi-generational trips) but it’s more than that. I truly want to help you plan your magical vacation. Everyone’s trip is different. There’s no one way to plan a vacation so it’s “right”. This is your trip and you need to do what’s best for you and your family. I’ve been writing about Disney for almost ten years and have gathered the best resources to help make your trip planning as painless as possible.
Before You Start
Planning your trip to Walt Disney World can be incredibly overwhelming. You’re already a big step ahead of so many other guests by starting to think about your trip now. Many guests just show up at the gates and don’t have a clue how they’re going to spend their day. They don’t understand Extra Magic Hours, Memory Maker, or FastPass+ is. And don’t worry if you don’t know what that is either – I’m going to help you.
There’s a lot of things you’ll need to get figured out before you actually ride under that magical Walt Disney World sign and enjoy the vacation you’re dreaming of. We’re going to take it step by step. Work through as many things as you can at any given time. This doesn’t need to be completed in one sitting. Come and go as you need to. And remember – nothing’s set in stone. Go back to change things as needed. There’s a whole section on being adaptable.
Who’s the Planner?
There are two types of planners: those who need to do everything themselves and those who want someone else to come in and do the planning for them. Lots of people start out thinking they’ll be able to plan their dream Disney vacation on their own and get overwhelmed and throw their hands up in frustration. Don’t let yourself get frustrated. You’ve got this planning guide to help you and you can also reach out to a travel agent who specializes in Disney vacations.
Going It on Your Own
Use this planner and the resources available to you. You’re going to be committing several hours to planning this trip. You’ll find yourself marking down dates on your calendar to make dining reservations. Making a list of phone numbers to book your dining reservations or to contact your resort to make a special request or ask a question. I’m not saying it’s not doable, I’m just saying you’re going to have to put in some work.
Getting Some Help
Contacting a travel agent doesn’t mean you’re going to pay any more for your Disney vacation or have any more or less magical visit. After you pick your agent, take some time to talk with them to let them know exactly what you’re hoping to get from your vacation so they know how to best help you. Work through this book so you’ll know what to share with them. And know that you can be as involved as you want with your travel agent. Let them be the ones to scour and find the best deals for your visit, wait on hold to get you your must have dining reservation so you don’t have to, and do all the work for you so you can have all the fun.
Things to Consider Before Your Vacation
- Who’ll be planning
- When you’ll be visiting
- How you’ll be getting there
- Where you’ll be staying
- How you’ll be getting around
- What and where you’ll be eating
- What you’ll be purchasing (souvenirs)
- Celebrating during your visit
- Packing for your visit
- Getting home from vacation
Many people associate a Disney vacation with expensive. While your vacation can certainly be costly, it doesn’t have to be. With some planning you’ll be able to get to Disney without breaking the bank. Some folks take the approach of planning their vacation and saving that amount to make it all happen. Others have a budget they need to stick to and build their vacation around that. Whatever way you’ll be planning your vacation is fine. No way is better than another.
Determine your priorities. If you’ll be spending lots of time at your resort, you’ll want to spend more on your resort than a family visiting who’s going to spend all their time in the parks. Some families are foodies and want to make sure to experience as many different restaurants as possible while other families will bring their own food or just grab quick service meals between attractions. Once you know what your priority is, you’ll know where to focus your efforts and your budget.
When you visit Walt Disney World will have an impact on a lot of different pieces of your vacation. You need to visit Disney during your school’s winter break, summer vacation, or spring break. That’s ok. For families that have flexibility in when you visit, look at different times during the year that will work best for your budget.
Ways you can save for your vacation:
- Garage Sale – clean out the house and make some money for your Disney fund
- Gift Cards – purchase Disney gift cards at a big box store at a discount and use those to make payments on your trip or as spending money during your vacation
- Cash Back – when you’re shopping and are asked if you want cash back at the register, say yes and put the amount towards your Disney trip
- Rewards – use your credit card rewards to help reserve a hotel room, airline tickets, or rental cars. Consider getting a Disney Visa Card for even more rewards
- Change – save your loose change to use towards your vacation
- Switch Things Up – consider skipping your morning coffee run and make your own at home. Pack your lunch instead of eating out or have a movie night at home instead of going out. Just be sure to put those funds aside for your vacation so they’re not spent on something else
Getting To and From Disney
Depending on where travel falls in your list of priorities, you’ll know what your options are for getting to Walt Disney World. Flying or driving, it doesn’t matter how you get there. Just keep reminding yourself that you’ll wind up at Disney World regardless.
Families using a travel agent can let them make your travel arrangements for you. If you need to book your own flights, book them as early as you can to save the most money. Keep in mind that you’ll need to share your flight information with Disney’s Magical Express if you’ll be using that service to get you from the airport to your Disney resort. By staying at a Disney resort, you’ll be taking advantage of all of the transportation options included to get you to and from your resort.
Think about using a credit card for normal purchases to earn yourself some airline miles to use on your trip to help save on your budget.
Sign up for travel alerts from your favorite airlines or travel sites so you’ll be alerted when there’s a good deal for your tickets.
Driving can seem to be more cost effective. Be sure to consider everything when you’re comparing costs: wear on your vehicle, the cost of gas, how many hours you’ll need for traveling, costs of meals, and hotel stays during your drive. Once you look at all the numbers, sometime it’s more cost effective to fly or even take a train to somewhere closer before renting a car and driving the remaining distance.
Your accommodations can be a huge part of your budget, but they certainly don’t have to be. Basically you can stay on Disney property or off Disney property. Both options have pros and cons, and you’ll need to think about them before you make the best decision for your family. Lots of people I’ve spoken with tell me that staying off property is so much cheaper. While it might seem that way initially, make sure that you look at all the different options before making a final decision.
Choosing to stay at a Disney Resort during your vacation has several perks associated with it. Things like Extra Magic Hours (park hours dedicated just to Disney Resort guests!), complimentary transportation to and from your resort to other Disney parks on property, and the extensive theming the resorts have throughout them. Disney offers value resort, moderate resorts, and deluxe resorts so guests can choose the option that best fits their budget. Your travel agent will help you find the best price on your resort and will continue to monitor different options until it’s time for you to check in for your vacation. If you’re choosing to make your own arrangements, check the Disney website frequently to learn about different offers that are available to you. Generally you only need to leave a one night deposit when making a room-only reservation and can pay the balance at check in. When you book a package (room, tickets, meal plan) you generally need to pay a flat rate deposit and pay within a certain window prior to your check in date.
Guests staying on property often decorate their windows or doors. You can make your own decorations but if you think you’d rather purchase something, you can order them from sellers on Etsy.
There are so many different choices and things to consider when picking a resort for your vacation. Do you want a resort close to Disney property? Are you willing to stay further away and drive a bit for a cheaper rate? What kind of amenities do you want your resort to have? Do you want a Good Neighbor resort (the perks of a Disney Resort without actually staying on Disney property)? Remember that you’ll need to pay to park at the Disney parks if you aren’t staying on property or have an Annual Pass. That can add up quickly so be sure to factor that in to your cost comparison.
Use your credit card to earn points to use for your resort stay.
Look at timeshare options you have available to you. Have a friend who won’t be using their time this year? Maybe they’d be willing to make a deal with you.
Getting Around Disney Property
Disney offers several modes of complementary transportation to help you get around their property. While these options are available to any of the guests visiting the parks, they’re focused on the guests staying at their resorts. You’ll be asked to board transportation at a Disney resort or Disney Springs to get to one of the parks. Buses leaving the parks will be heading to the resorts or Disney Springs. If you plan to drive your personal vehicle, you’ll need to pay to park at the parks which can add up quickly during your visit.
Meals and Food
Whether you’re with a crowd or by yourself, there are so many delicious options. If you’re visiting alone, here’s some tips on eating solo at Walt Disney World.
The food options at Walt Disney World are out of this world. Even the pickiest eater will be able to find something they enjoy.
For foodies or families wanting to experience lots of different dining experiences or want to be able to budget better for their vacation, consider the Disney Dining Plan. Review the different options available and choose the one that best fits your family’s needs.
Table Service Meals
Sitting down to catch up over a meal can be a great way to start or end your Disney day. A table service meal will allow your family to enjoy a buffet style meal or full menu available to order from. It’s best to make an Advanced Dining Reservation (ADR) before you leave home if you have a restaurant that you have to eat at during your visit.
Waiting in a long line with tired kids who are hot and hungry isn’t exactly how you’d planned to spend your vacation. Keeping that in mind, it may be worth spending the money to enjoy a character meal. In addition to the delicious food you’ll get, characters will come right to your table to interact, sign autographs, and take pictures with your family. One thing to keep in mind is that while you paid for this experience, so did the rest of the restaurant. Enjoy your time while they’re at your table, but be mindful that they need to keep moving to see everyone. Trying to decide if a character meal is right for you? Check out these character meal pros and cons to help you decide.
Quick Service Meals
Quick service meals can be compared to a fast food type meal back in the real world. Meals like these are perfect to eat on the go – grab something and eat it while you’re waiting for the parade or fireworks to begin.
Dining with Allergies
Be sure when making your ADRs that you note any allergies. When you arrive to check in for your reservations, be sure the Cast Members are aware of the allergies. A chef will usually come speak with you personally to address any allergies and offer suggestions on how they can accommodate those issues.
Packing for any vacation can be stressful, but packing for a Disney vacation can be even more stressful. This post is full of tips for packing for your vacation without losing your mind and has tons of free printables. You’ll even be able to get the kids involved in packing.
If you’re like me, you’ll want to pack everything just in case. Sometimes that’s not possible.
Know Your Limits
If you’re only flying with a carry on to have on the cost of checked baggage, all your items will need to fit into your carry on. You know how much space you’ll have in your car for luggage, snacks, drinks, and the people traveling with you. Starting here will help you limit what you’re packing and make you focus on the essentials so you don’t overpack.
Try packing how you’ll be using the different things. Pack outfits together in piles (you can use zip top bags for kid’s clothes) so you can just grab that pile and get ready. Having all your toiletries in one bag keeps everyone from rooting through different bags trying to find what they need to get ready.
Hit the Ground Running
Disney’s Magical Express will drop you off at your resort straight from the airport. Sometimes your room isn’t ready or your luggage isn’t available right away. When you arrive early in the day and plan to head right to the pool, parks, or Disney Springs, be sure to pack accordingly. Have a small bag of things that you keep with you so you can get right to the fun.
Counting Down to Your Vacation
To help you not have to answer “Is it time for Disney yet?” a hundred times a day, a countdown calendar will be super helpful.
Traveling as Part of a Group
Visiting Walt Disney World with your extended family is a fantastic idea! Often times it can be easier to get everyone together to go to Disney than trying to pick a random place everyone is able to get to. Here are a few things to help make planning your visit a little easier:
Get a Plan
Order your free vacation planning DVD. If you’re all close enough, have everyone over and watch the DVD together. This will help you figure out what everyone is interested in doing and what they’re willing to skip over if needed. You’ll need to start with the basics: how long and when you’ll be visiting. Everyone can make their own reservations so they’re able to pick a resort that best fits their budget.
Everyone Won’t be Happy All the Time
Regardless of how much planning and prep work you do, someone’s not going to love the plans.
Decide How to Explore
Your family might want to pick every other day to spend together exploring the parks. Maybe you’ll all do your own thing and just meet up for a meal during the day. Or maybe you’ll all start (or end) your day together then split up and do your own things.
Spending time apart isn’t a bad thing. This is everyone’s vacation and that means different things to everyone. Some people like to sleep late and start their day at lunch time. Others like to be up and experience rope drop at the parks every morning. Food will be the priority for some, while others want to just grab and go to the next adventure.
If you’d all like to spend your time together, it’s best to make limited plans with lots of breaks throughout the day. That allows plenty of time to rest and take in the different sights and sounds around the resort and parks. Nap time back at the resort gives the everyone time to recharge. Little ones might take a nap while others might want to check out the pool.
When and Where to Purchase Things
Things are generally going to be cheaper when you purchase them back at home. If you’re not able to shop before you arrive at Disney, you can pre-order groceries online and have them delivered to your resort, or run out to pick things up (Uber or a taxi can get you to a grocery or big box store).
You’ll see lots of different things around the parks and you’ll probably want to buy a few things during your visit. It’s a good idea to hold off on making your purchases until you’ve looked around a bit. Don’t grab the first cute mug you see – you’ll be sad when you walk through another store and see a different mug you’ve got to have instead.
If you’re staying at a Walt Disney World Resort, take advantage of another perk of staying on property. You can have your purchases delivered to your resort! Simply let the Cast Member know what resort you’re staying at and they’ll make sure it gets to the right place. Guests not staying at a Disney Resort can have their packages delivered to the front of the park, to be picked up on your way out. Set a reminder on your phone or do something else to be sure you don’t forget to pick up your package.
Park Specific Merchandise
Anything park specific usually needs to be purchased at that specific park. Check out the different shops during your day exploring and experiencing the park. On your way out for the evening, make your purchases. That gives you plenty of time to think about what you want (or time for the kids to forget about it if they don’t really need it).
Looking for something with a touch of Disney? Maybe you want to find your favorite brand. Disney Springs is the place for you. There are dozens of different shops – brands you already know and love as well as stores specific to Disney.
Splurges and Extras
Whether it’s your first Disney visit or your hundredth, there are so many things you can do to add a bit more pixie dust to your vacation. Please know that regardless of it you do any of these things or not, you’re still going to have a wonderful vacation. It’s not about how much money you spend on your visit, but making memories with the people you’re traveling with.
I take pictures all day every day. This happens times 100 at Disney. Make sure you’ve saved the photos on your phone before clearing them off to make room for Disney pictures. Cast Members are always willing to snap a picture of your family when asked nicely. Did you know there were Cast Members whose job is just to take pictures? These PhotoPass photographers can be found throughout the parks. Post, smile, then scan your Magic Band to save the pictures to your My Disney Experience account. You’ll be able to review them, and with Memory Maker, you’ll have unlimited downloads so you don’t have to go through and try to pick your favorites from all the shots they take.
These book quickly so if it’s something you’re considering, you’ll want to make a reservation right away. Watching the fireworks from the water in a peaceful boat with your friends and family is a completely different experience than standing with thousands of other people in the park.
Fireworks Dessert Party
Enjoy delicious desserts with your group while watching the fireworks from a private viewing location.
If you’re celebrating during your visit, you can order a custom cake from one of Disney’s bakeries. There are lots of different options depending on where you’ll be ordering the cake from, so it’s best to contact the Cake Hotline and speak with someone to know exactly what your options are. Cakes can be delivered to your resort (you’ll need to be in your room when it’s delivered) or following your meal at one of Disney’s restaurants (you’ll need your ADR number when placing your order).
Celebrating During Your Visit
What better place than to celebrate an engagement, anniversary, or birthday than at Walt Disney World? There are a few things you can do to make your visit a little more magical.
Stop at Guest Services or the front desk of your resort and ask for a free button to celebrate your special day.
They’ve got several different packages available. Book early as there seem to be a limited number of spots for these services and they book quickly.
You can order a custom cake for your special events using the Disney Cake Hotline.
Guests with Disabilities
Disney is very accessible for guests with a wide range of disabilities.
Guest Assistance Card
For guests who need special accommodations for things like a shorter wait in line, you’ll need a Guest Assistance Card.
Disney is also very helpful to guests with allergies as well.
Free Things to Do During Your Visit
Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom
A Pirate’s Adventure
Making Changes on the Fly
One skill everyone at Disney needs to have is to be able to be adaptable. You might have perfect plans for an entire day of fun then wake up to find out it’s raining and your pool day plans are washed away. Or maybe Splash Mountain is at the top of your must do list and it’s down for repairs during your visit. Having to make changes won’t make your vacation any less magical. You might find something you hadn’t planned on doing and love it even more.
Upon entering the Disney parks, you’ll go through a bag check security area. Be sure to review the list of items not allowed in the parks. Having your bags open and ready help to keep the lines moving quickly.
One of the most exciting things to do when meeting characters is collecting their autograph. Disney sells autograph books for you to let the characters sign. Looking for a more creative way to save those signatures? Try one of these ideas:
Backpack or canvas bag
Cards or postcards (save them for special occasions like birthdays or celebrations)
And remember to think about the other people waiting too. Characters can’t spend an unlimited amount of time with your family signing things. The general rule is one item per guest meeting the character. Have your autograph items and pen ready to go when you meet the characters. It’s also helpful to have something hard for the characters to sign on if you’ve brought something that doesn’t have a hard surface. One other thing to keep in mind is that characters aren’t able to sign something you’re wearing. If you’d like them to sign a shirt, hat, backpack, etc you’ll have to be sure it’s not on your body. Thick pens are easiest for the characters to sign so be sure to bring something like a Sharpie that they’ll be able to easily grasp.
Getting Around the Parks
Getting from one place to another can be a little bit tricky. Be sure to use your maps to help you navigate through the parks. And don’t be afraid to stop and ask a Cast Member for directions.
Some guests need the assistance of wheelchairs to ECVs.
You have a couple of options when it comes to strollers – bring your own or rent one. Bringing your own can provide some comfort to your child. You’ll also know just how to use your stroller – folding it up or how much storage you’ll have. Sometimes it’s just easier to rent one once you’ve arrived at your destination. Disney offers single and double rental strollers. They’re a hard plastic and cannot leave the parks so you’ll need to carry your tired, sleeping kids from the park entrance to the busses (or your car) then back to your resort. If that sounds like too much work, choose a local rental company. They’ll deliver your stroller to your resort and you’ll be free to come and go using it like you would your own stroller.
Custom Shirts and Accessories
Many families want to make some kind of custom shirts to wear during their Disney vacation. Either option below will work if it’s your immediate family traveling together or if you’re traveling with a larger group.
Making Them at Home
Pick up shirts at a craft or big box store in your family’s sizes and colors that match the design you’ve chosen. While you’re at the craft store, be sure to grab some transfer paper. After you pick your design, print it on the transfer paper, and create your shirts. You can also try tie dying shirts if that’s more your style.
Not everyone has the time or talent to make their own shirts. Never fear – there are people with time and talent who will gladly make them for you.
Planning Your Days
Magic Between Visits