Normally we bring you one ride, show, or experience from Walt Disney World in hopes of making your next Disney vacation the best it can possibly be, or just to sprinkle some pixie dust over your day until the next time you can enjoy the parks. Today, however we are going to take a broader view of Walt Disney World and talk about the best ways to plan for your next Disney vacation.
Speaking of next Disney vacation, my next trip is just around the corner! In fact, I fly down to Orlando next week and I can’t wait. This trip will include my wife and her brother’s family. We will have 1 adult, and 2 kids that are experiencing the most magical place on Earth for the very first time! It has been a lot of fun planning with them over the past few months and watching them get more and more excited as they countdown to Disney. It has really helped me examine what rides and experiences will be best for our 4-year old nephew and 2-year old niece. Beyond the rides, it has also been a great experience getting to plan my own Walt Disney World vacation in more than a year.
As a Disney Travel Planner I get to help families plan their magical trips on a weekly basis. One thing I love is that every trip is different. Every family, including my own, has its own set of priorities, age ranges, and interests. I often like to think of a Walt Disney World vacation as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. With each selection you turn to a different page and discover a new set of fun. Well, if a Walt Disney World vacation was a book like that it would have to be about a billion pages long. There are really limitless combinations of experiences when it comes to this playground for all ages.
With that said, there are some guidelines that I like to use with every trip I help plan to ensure that particular vacation is the best that it can possibly be. We have touched on many of these tools in the course of our podcast, but until today we have not put them in the nice shiny package of one episode. So, that is exactly what we are going to do! I am going to outline my steps to planning an unforgettable Walt Disney World vacation, offer some tips along the way, and illustrate some of these points with our upcoming trip.
We don’t have Know Before You Go Essential Facts today, but instead let’s get started with my 7 Steps For Planning to Ride
- 1. Select Your Dates
- 2. Choose Your Resort
- 3. Book Your Trip Early
- 4. Create a Touring Plan
- 5. Make Reservations
- 6. How to Pack
- 7. Review and Go!
- Select Your Dates
The #1 asked question when it comes to planning a Disney vacation is “What is the best time to go?” I’m going to tell you something that you probably haven’t heard before, something I didn’t think could be true until I started planning a lot of vacations. Are you ready? Anytime is the best time to go! That’s right, I truly believe any time of the year can be a great time to enjoy a Walt Disney World vacation.
Now, before you completely tune me out and stop reading, hear me out. I didn’t always think this way. For a long time I was searching for the absolute perfect time to visit. This meant I avoided going anytime schools were out and I usually visited during early Spring or Late Fall. To me these periods represented the best weather with the lowest crowds. In fact, that is why we are taking a trip in April. With low temps in the mid 60’s and highs in the 80’s, the weather is great this time of year. Plus, Spring Break crowds have come and gone so crowds after Easter are relatively easy to navigate. Historically, October was a great month as well for these same reasons.
So, why not recommend one of these months as the best time to go? Well, crowd patterns have begun to change at Walt Disney World in the past few years. Traditional “peak times” have begun to soften and what was once considered the “off season” can now be as busy as mid summer. This didn’t happen by accident. Disney has carefully crafted seasonal events like The Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival, the Food & Wine Festival, Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, and Very Merry Christmas Party. Add to this the runDisney events, conventions, and new seasonal after hour parties and it is hard to find a month on the calendar that doesn’t have something extra going. Now, combine the seasonal ticket pricing that began in 2016 and you can see how Disney is working to control the flow of the crowds. The end result is a park that sees steady attendance the entire year.
Of course, there are a few times to still avoid if you want to enjoy the parks without wall to wall people. The week between Christmas and New Year is still the most crowded time of the entire year. Additionally, any holidays will see big bumps in attendance and you can expect longer waits for rides and more people to contend with in general. The positive side to going during holidays are the special holiday parties and seasonal decorations that bring the parks and resorts to life in a whole new festive way. In other words, there are pros and cons to just about anytime you decide to go which is why I am telling you anytime can be a great time to plan your trip!
My advice: choose what matters most to your family and then select dates. Do you need to go when the kids are out of school and you want to swim everyday at the resort? Then summertime is the obvious choice. Is Christmas your favorite time of year? Or, maybe ringing in the New Year in the most magical place sounds unbeatable? Whatever the case, find a time that works best for your family. Remember, anytime of the year can be great, just try to plan at least 180 days out.
2. Choose Your Resort
Let’s get one thing out of the way, staying on property is the best way to experience the most Disney has to offer. You may have an Uncle with a time share in Orlando, or hotel points at some off property chain, but I promise the money you are saving is a trade off for the immersive experience of staying at a Disney resort. With that said, we are going to focus our time on the Disney property hotels.
If you visit their website, Disney currently lists more than 25 resort hotels. This is slightly misleading as some of these are villas on the same property as the resort. In any case, that is still a lot to choose from! The first thing to know is that Disney puts all of the resorts into a category: Value, Moderate, or Deluxe. Villas could really be a fourth category of their own at this point, but these three distinctions give you a good idea of the available price ranges. Before you go falling in love with the idea of riding the Monorail to the Magic Kingdom, establish your budget and then see what category fits your budget. I have had several guests that started their search with Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort because it is on the Monorail and looks amazing, oh and they have Dole Whips! Sorry, I’m getting side tracked. Anyway, for many families this resort is a little out of their price range and they end up disappointed that they can’t afford a Monorail resort. Had they started looking at a Value level they might have been able to even upgrade to a Moderate and then been really excited about the nicer accommodations. Let me give you a quick overview of the differences in each of the levels of resorts.
Let’s say you are the average family of four on a budget. You have two young kids and you expect to spend all of your time in the parks. Well then, a Disney Value Resort might be all you need. These resorts have standard rooms with two double beds, kid friendly themes with fun pools, and lots of Disney characters represented throughout property. In this category my two favorites are Disney’s Art of Animation and Disney’s Pop Century Resort. The Art of Animation has family suites that will sleep up to 6 adults. Just be aware that these suites will cost more than most standard rooms at a Moderate level resort. If a standard room is all you need and you can afford the suites, I recommend going up to a Moderate level resort in most cases.
The Moderate category is great for families that might have slightly older children, or adults traveling without kids but are still on a budget. Most of these rooms will have 2 queen beds or 1 king bed, and offer a little more square footage than the Value level resorts. Bus transportation is slightly more convenient and in some cases water taxis are also available. The pools are upgraded to include a slide and table service restaurants are available at the Moderate resorts. Some even have villas and suites to accommodate larger parties. We chose a 2-bedroom villa at a Moderate resort for our upcoming vacation. The price is still less expensive than going up to two rooms at a Deluxe resort, and we get a full kitchen, plus two full bathrooms and even in-room laundry. For larger families that want room to spread out, or plan to spend more time in the room, a villa can be a great option. It’s hard to pick a favorite in the Moderate category, but I really like Disney’s Port Orleans – Riverside and Disney’s Coronado Springs Resorts.
Deluxe resorts boast the most amenities, largest rooms, and in most cases are the closest resorts to the parks. This is a great option for adults traveling without kids, or families that can afford to splurge on the best Disney has to offer. You can actually walk to the Magic Kingdom from Disney’s Contemporary Resort, or take the monorail to the Magic Kingdom or Epcot via the Ticket & Transportation Center. The Monorail also services Disney’s Grand Floridian and Polynesian Village Resorts. Boats also run to each of these three Magic Kingdom area resorts as well as Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. Over in the Epcot area, you can walk to the International Gateway entrance from the Yacht or Beach Club, or Boardwalk Inn. Hollywood Studios is accessible by walking path as well, but is a little longer jaunt then most care to make. The 3 Epcot area resorts also offer water taxi service to both Epcot and Hollywood Studios. The one oddball of the bunch is Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. The only method of transportation from this Deluxe resort is via bus. Its location also makes it the most isolated from the three parks outside of the Animal Kingdom. However, it is the only resort with an actual Savannah out your back patio! That bumps it way up in my book. It, like all the Deluxe resorts, also features some amazing restaurants. These will be a step or two up from the table service locations found in the Moderate resorts. Some of Disney’s best signature and character dining can be found in the Deluxe resorts.
Whatever level you choose, you will enjoy earlier access to Advanced Dining Reservations, Fastpass+, and all the complimentary transportation options on property. You can also take advantage of Disney’s Magical Express which we talked about in last week’s podcast. My favorite thing though, just being inside the “Disney bubble.” Once you get on the Magical Express and the Disney music starts playing, it feels like you are being transported to a whole new world. Staying on property allows you to interact with friendly Cast Members from sun up to sun down and that helps the magical feeling stay with you during your entire trip.
3. Book Your Trip
Once you have your dates selected and know where you want to stay it is time to book your trip. Remember, if you can do this at least 180 days in advance that is ideal.
That may sound like a long time, but trust me, it goes by faster than you think and it gives you time to plan for everything you want to do when you go. If you selected a Disney resort as we just discussed you can make Advanced Dining Reservations 180 days out. We talked about the importance of this in the Be Our Guest episode a few weeks back. This is one of several restaurants that almost always requires a reservation be made at the 180 day mark. We decided to take our upcoming trip after the 180 day mark had passed and as a result I have not been able to get a lunch or dinner reservation for Be Our Guest. Thanks to the added breakfast time I was able to grab a breakfast reservation on our last day. The benefit of booking your trip 180 days in advance is that you can secure most, if not all, of the special meal reservations you want to experience.
The next big time table is Fastpass+ which comes at 60 days out for on site guests, or 30 days for those staying off property. If you can’t make the 180 day mark, try to at least plan more than 60 days in advance.
Before we move on, I want to say that you can still have a great time at Walt Disney World without such advanced bookings. If you listened to our podcast with Darrell, he talked about his first visit to Hollywood Studios in which he didn’t buy his ticket until the day before and went in with zero Fastpass+ or dining reservations. He had a great day, but he was also only there for the one day and was going solo. So, it is possible to have a magical time on short notice, but the bigger the family the more you will benefit from advanced planning.
I will say that you want to book as early as possible so you can lock in your room and ticket rate. The price could go down if a promotion comes out, which is why you want a travel agent working with you. As travel agents it’s our job to make sure any applicable promotions are applied to your existing reservations. If something comes out and you don’t have a travel agent or call Disney yourself, guess what? You are out of luck. Disney is not going to automatically move your reservation over to the new promo and send you a refund. On the flip side, if you haven’t booked and the price of tickets or the rooms go up, you can bet Disney will be charging the new higher rate. You can always apply new applicable promos to an existing reservation, but you can’t go back in time and get the cheaper rate if you haven’t already booked. Book early, use a travel agent, and you might get lucky with a promotion. At worst you are securing yourself from paying more with rate increases.
4. Create a Touring Plan
All right, your trip is booked which means it is time to create a Touring Plan! This is one of the most overlooked steps, but one I feel is most important to your level of enjoyment. Of course, that is why I have created this podcast, to help you identify the experiences you want to have ahead of time so you can create a plan of attack.
Before you start deciding what rides, shows or restaurants you want to enjoy, you need to first pick the park or parks you want to attend on each day of your trip. Believe it or not, the crowds will not be evenly dispersed throughout all four parks, and some days are better to visit certain parks. There are a lot of crowd calendars online that can help give you a sense of how things might go. Just remember, no matter the source, these are all estimates based on historical data, and as we said at the beginning Disney crowd patterns are constantly evolving. It’s kinda like looking at the weather forecast in the morning. Some days your weather app will get everything right, and other days an unexpected thunderstorm pops up. The same goes for crowd level estimates.
So, I’m not going to tell you to visit this park on this day or that one on another. This is another area where an experienced travel planner can really help you build a personalized plan. If this is a first trip for some in your group, like ours this time, I recommend you either start or end the trip at the Magic Kingdom. We are actually bookending our trip with the Magic Kingdom on our first and last day. We have a full day planned at the other three parks in between. How many days you have in the parks and who is in your travel party will greatly influence what your touring plan looks like. If you are traveling without kids, you may want to spend more time at Epcot or Hollywood Studios. If you have animal lovers in the group you may want a full day or more at the Animal Kingdom. The best thing to do is to ask each member of your party what is important to them. With this established, you can then select how many days to spend in each park. If you have Park Hopper tickets you can split a day or two up and only spend half a day in a park that doesn’t hold as much interest for your group.
Whatever works for you, plan on having each day of your trip designated to a specific park or two. This is a must when you go to make Advanced Dining reservations or Fastpass+ reservations. You need to know what day you plan to be in Disney’s Hollywood Studios if you are trying to make a Fantasmic Dinner Package, or what day you are going to be in Epcot so you can make a FP+ for Frozen Ever After. Think of the most highly coveted rides or restaurants as anchor points in your touring plan. You won’t want to risk losing these experiences by changing days or times so you need to have your parks selected before the 180 mark if possible.
I was able to make most of our top priority reservations by knowing where we planned to be each day. Some of the smaller details of the touring plan have changed over the past few weeks, but the days we are in each park has stayed the same and thus our reservations for Be Our Guest, Garden Grill, and others have remained intact.
The other question that comes up with a touring plan is how detailed do you want it to be. If you have a family that thrives on spontaneity, it’s probably not a good idea to plan out every minute of your day. Likewise, if your family is used to running on a tight schedule, it makes no sense to arrive at Walt Disney World with no plan at all. I learned this the hard way on our Disneyland trip last year. In the past I have been accused of perhaps over planning a bit, shocker I know. So, I intentionally did not plan out every move we made at Disneyland. I still had a general idea, but wanted to allow my family to make the decision about what to do next together. The only problem was that my family was used to me telling them where to go next and what was coming after that. When I gave them the freedom to decide it only caused confusion and chaos. They may have said they didn’t want every minute planned out, but what they really wanted was a plan that could be flexible. Next time we go to Disney together I will have a complete plan ready to go, but I will also be ready to break from that plan when someone is tired or needs a break. That is pretty much my game plan for our upcoming trip as well. I want to allow time for my niece and nephew to experience as much as possible by having an efficient touring plan in place, but I’m prepared to scratch rides off the list if we need to take a break or go back to the room early that day.
In fact, we have already adjusted our touring plan after talking more to Caleb and Lacey about the kids’ schedule. Knowing how to attack each day is extremely important! If you have little ones that need a nap at exactly 2:00 pm everyday, that trend isn’t going to change just because you are at Disney. If you are early risers then you can go for rope drop. If you need to be in bed by 8:00 pm, don’t plan on watching the fireworks every night of your trip. Again, knowing your family’s routine and creating a plan that fits that routine sets you up for success. Our plan is to be at rope drop every morning, head back to the resort for an afternoon break, and then return each night for a few more hours of park touring. This fits with the kids’ normal schedule and hopefully will allow them to have the energy needed to enjoy the trip.
Once you know which park you will visit each day and when you plan to start and stop each day you have the rough draft of your touring plan. From there it is a matter of filling in with your most anticipated rides, shows, or dining experiences. That means it is time for Step 5.
Unfortunately, I think I have gone a little long already today! When I started I didn’t plan on this being a two part episode, but seeing where we are on time I think that is going to be necessary. I have a lot left to share, especially when it comes to making reservations. So, we are going to stop there for today and the good news is that you will get another episode next week that I wasn’t planning on!
Remember this time next week we will be in Disney World, but I will make sure the next episode is ready to go before we leave. We still plan to share as much of our trip with you as we can through Facebook Live, Instagram, and quick daily recaps from the parks. If you haven’t liked our Facebook page, followed us on Instagram, or subscribed to the podcast, now is the time!
Thank you so much for joining me today! I look forward to brining you the rest of my tips for Planning to Ride next week. Until then I hope you have a great time and wherever you are, be sure to make each day a ride worth taking!
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