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The Ultimate Walt Disney World Vacation Planning Guide

Whether you are a seasoned visitor to Walt Disney World or a newbie I am sure you will benefit from this Walt Disney World Planning Guide!  Planning a trip to Walt Disney World can be the most exciting vacation planning process or the most complicated and stressful process, depending on what you know and what you want out of your vacation.  I created this Planning Guide to helps simplify your planning process so that you can create an incredibly magical vacation!

Plan the Ultimate Disney World Vacation

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Disney World Planning Guide

Many families save for years to experience that magical feeling of walking down Main Street USA toward Cinderella’s castle. However, if you’ve never been to the Mouse’s house before it can easily turn into a vacation filled with nothing but 3 hour-long lines, less than stellar accommodations, and fast food for every meal.  As an annual pass holder, I have learned a lot of the ins and outs of the planning process including where to stay, where to eat, when to visit, and how early to book fast passes.  And I want to share all this with you guys so that your dream vacation can result in the same passionate love that I feel for the happiest place on earth.

Before you start planning Your Disney Trip

Before you start planning your vacation, I suggest you do two important things.  First, download the My Disney Experience App, this will be your Disney information hub while you plan and during your Disney Vacation.  Second, decide on a budget.  Disney World can provide a magical vacation for every budget, but before you get too deep into the planning process you want to think about your family’s budget and what is most important to your family.  Some family’s want to spend every day at the parks from rope drop until the kiss goodnight, so a large portion of their budget will go towards park tickets.  While others want to spend time relaxing by the pool and sleeping in, which might mean opting for a Deluxe resort and fewer park days makes more sense.  With so many options and attractions to see it is so easy to feel overwhelmed but starting with a picture of what is most important to you during your trip will help your planning process go a lot smoother.

This guide will help you plan the most epic Walt Disney World trip for you and your family. Utilize these tips and make this a vacation to remember for a lifetime. 

Decide When to Visit Disney World

Deciding on when to visit Walt Disney World is another important choice to make when you first start planning your vacation.  If you are traveling with young children or adults, you are probably lucky enough to have more freedom with your travel dates.  However, if you are traveling with school-aged children and trying to plan around school vacations, these are usually the busiest time to visit, which can result in extra-long wait times for rides and higher prices on airfare and hotel rooms.  Plus, the summer months in Florida are extremely hot and humid with afternoon thunderstorms on most days.  Not to say that it can’t be done or your memories will be any less special, before moving to Florida, we traveled to the Walt Disney World every year in August.  We left the parks every night covered in sweat, but we still loved every minute of it.

If you have the freedom to choose any times of year to visit and would rather have some cooler weather and a lot fewer crowds then I recommend traveling late January through the beginning of February, which is in between school holiday breaks and school winter breaks.  Late April is also a great time to visit, right after all the spring breakers leave.  The fall is another option, Labor Day till just before Thanksgiving is a slower time because kids are starting back to school, plus you get to enjoy Disney’s incredible holiday decorations.

Disney World Special Events

Disney World has countless special events throughout the year, if you are hoping to attend an annual festival, party, or marathon then your travel dates are likely predetermined to an extent.  If you haven’t thought about attending one of Disney Worlds Special Events, I highly suggest you look into them before locking in your travel dates.  Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party is one of my family’s favorite Disney experiences and Epcot’s Food and Wine Festival brings my family and friends to the park over a dozen times a year to listen to amazing bands and try different food that is only available during the festival.

Epcot’s International Festival of the Holidays at Disney World

Epcot Food and Wine Festival 2019 Introduction and Guide

Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party Tips and Strategy

How to Get to Walt Disney World

Deciding on whether to drive or fly to Disney World, will likely depend on a few situations.  If you are staying on the Disney property in one of their resorts and do not plan to go off-site at all, then flying may be the easiest option for you.  You fly right into Orlando International Airport, and Disney’s Magic Express takes care of everything for you.  They bring you straight to your resort, where your luggage will be waiting for you in your room.  Also in many cases, you are able to skip the check-in line and use your magic bands to go straight to your vacation home.

If you are staying off-site, plan to see more of Orlando than just Disney, or are looking for a more budget-friendly option for getting to Disney, then I suggest taking the road trip down to Orlando.  As a family of 5, it could easily run us over $1000 just in airfare cost, however when we used to do the Boston to Orlando road trip we could arrive in 48 hours, for less than $350 including a one-night hotel stay to sleep with complimentary breakfast, a couple stops for meals, and filling our gas tank a couple of times.  Plus, we didn’t have to worry about renting a car once we arrived, and were free to eat and explore as we pleased.

Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort

Where to Stay at Disney World

Debating whether or not to stay at a hotel on the resort or off, is something you need to weigh out the pros and cons. While staying in a Disney resort you can get free transportation to parks, shuttles from the airport, and even extended hours at the parks. But it does come with a price tag to it. If you are looking to save money consider staying at a hotel near Disney so it won’t take that long to go back and forth to your hotel. 

Staying on Disney Property

Staying on Disney Property is extra magical, there is nothing like it.  You are fully immersed in the magic 24 hours a day, you don’t have to worry about driving anywhere, and heading back to the resort when children need to nap or to go for a swim is very convenient.  However, there is a huge range of hotel options within Walt Disney World.  Including everything from camping to gorgeous 5-star resorts.  If you are planning to spend most of your vacation in the parks, I suggest staying at a Value Resort.  If you plan to take days off between the parks and enjoy the resorts, then the Moderate and Deluxe Resorts are what you’ll want.  All hotels offer different themes and perks.  My favorite Moderate Resort is currently the Caribbean Beach Resort because of the access to the skyline and the relaxing island vibe.  While my favorite Deluxe Resort is the Yacht Club Resort, this resort is breathtaking both inside and out with a nautical look and sand bottom pool, plus it is within walking distance to Disney’s Boardwalk and Epcot.

Disney Resorts Comparison: Deluxe Vs. Moderate Vs. Value

Review of Disney World’s Caribbean Beach Resort

Staying Off Disney Property

If you are looking to save money, get more amenities for the price, or be able to escape the hustle and bustle of Walt Disney World then staying off of the Disney Property is likely to be a good match for you.  I like staying off-site when I am staying in Orlando for a week or longer because it makes visiting other Orlando attractions, grocery shopping, and exploring Florida easier.  However, you do need to keep in mind that you will have to factor the cost of a rental car and parking fees at the theme parks into your budget, but you will still likely be spending a fraction of the price for off-site accommodations and many of the hotels in the Disney Springs and Bonnet Creek area offer shuttles to the theme parks.

5 Reasons Your Family Will Love Staying at the Wyndham International Drive

Hilton Bonnet Creek Resort

Should You Get The Disney Dining Plan

If you are new to Disney you might be wondering if you need to buy a Disney meal plan?  Disney offers 4 Dining Plan options to choose from, each offering 2 meals (3 with the Deluxe Dining Plan) and 2 snacks a day.  Each dining plan specifies how many quick-service meals vs table meals you get, along with a refillable drink cup for while you are at the resort.  If you plan to eat out on Disney property for the length of your stay, getting a Disney Dining Plan may be perfect for you.  You will already have your meals budgeted into your vacation and will be more likely to try all the amazing restaurants that Disney has to offer.  However, if your family doesn’t usually like to eat 2-3 meals a day or if you are trying to keep your dining costs on a tighter budget, skipping the Dining Plan may be a better option for your family. 

If your family doesn’t usually want a big breakfast, you could pack some cereal and eat breakfast at your hotel, and then plan reservations for a late lunch at one of the Disney Dining Locations you really want to try.  You can also pack food and drinks to bring into the park with you which is a great way to cut down expenses especially if you are going on a budget or with a large family. Consider packing your lunch so that you can enjoy a dole-whip or another must-try Disney Snack Option.

Eating at Disney World is a full experience of its own, they offer character dining, themed dining, upscale dining, and everything in between.  Even the snacks are irresistible and taste testing them all makes its way on to many tourist’s Disney Bucket List, so the number of meals you choose to eat will depend on how much time you plan on being out and about, and if the Disney meal plan fits your family.

Mobile Order in Walt Disney World: Everything You Need to Know

Disney Dining Plan: Do You Need It

Buying Your Disney Park Tickets and Getting Magic Bands

Plan to order your tickets ahead of time to help save money and make planning your trip easier.   You can order from other sites like Costco, ParkSavers, and UndercoverTourist to help find the best deal on tickets.  If you are thinking about getting tickets from a third-party retailer, make sure it is a reputable seller, and read the fine print, there are a lot of places that try to take advantage of tourists and sell fake tickets.  Prior to becoming a passholder, my family used Undercover Tourist frequently and we still do for other area attraction tickets.

However, Disney World frequently offers package specials including Meal Plans or Multiple Day Discounts, so it’s best to compare prices.  For some, the ease of creating a full Disney Package including airfare, dining, hotel accommodations, and park passes with your My Disney Experience account is worth the extra money.  It is also a great option for those who are planning far enough in advance and want to put a deposit on their trip and continue to make payments until they arrive.

If you are staying on Disney property you will receive a complimentary magic band which you will use as your hotel room key, park pass, and FastPass+ entrance.  You can also add charging abilities to it so that you can charge things throughout the resort and theme parks to your room.  This makes visiting the pool or park without a bag, a lot easier.  You will get to choose your Magic Band color in the My Disney Experience account and Disney will have the Magic Bands shipped to your home several weeks prior to your check-in date. 

The solid magic bands are currently free for resort guests, but Disney has released some fun new print that can be chosen for a small upcharge.  If you are staying off-site, you can also purchase a Magic Band on ShopDisney prior to your visit or within any of the Theme Parks during your visit and Attach your ticket to the Magic Band within the My Disney Experience App.

Disney World Vacation Planning Guide

Should You Get the Disney Memory Maker

The Disney PhotoPass Memory Maker gives you unlimited digital downloads of all your Disney PhotoPass pictures and videos taken during your trip for just $169.  In my opinion, the Memory Maker is the one vacation upgrade that you should purchase without any questions.  Some upgrades are great for some families and not for others, but the Memory Maker is a must for everyone.  Think about how many times someone in your family is missing from your pictures during a typical family vacation, with the Memory Maker you can take pictures at all the PhotoPass spots with everyone in the photo, plus you get ride photos, character dining photos, meet and greet photos, magic shots, and more.  I have a Memory Maker account attached to my Passholder Account and it one Disney upgrade that I couldn’t imagine visiting the parks without.

Why Disney PhotoPass is Worth It

Making Dinsey Dining Reservations

As I mentioned before dining at Disney World can be an incredible experience depending on what restaurant you choose.  If you’ve spent some time looking around Disney’s website or on social media, you likely have some ideas of the restaurants you absolutely can’t wait to try, that is where advanced dining reservations come into play.  Most of the new dining experiences and the classic Disney dining favorites book up and they book up fast!  Advanced Dining Reservations open up to be booked in your My Disney Experience App 180 days before your trip.  If you have your heart set on dinner at “Be Our Guest” or eating in the castle at “Cinderella’s Royal Table” you are going to want to book your reservations as soon as they become available.  While it may be unnerving putting a credit card down 6 months before your trip knowing things could change, have peace of mind knowing Disney allows you to cancel the reservation without a penalty up until 24 hours before the reserved time.    

Booking Your FastPass+ Selections

You receive 3 FastPass+ selections each day you are in the Disney Parks.  If you are staying on Disney Property you are able to book your FastPass+ selections 60 days prior to your arrival date, if you are staying off-site you are able to select your fastpasses 30 days out with a park ticket or annual pass.  Like dining reservations, these also book up extremely fast for the most popular rides, so I suggest you log on as soon as the system lets you, book fast and book strategically.   Rides like Seven Dwarf Mine Train and Peter Pan Flight rarely have wait times under an hour even during the top shows and parades, snag these first if they are available.  After that, think about your day and plan accordingly.  I would book one FastPass+ selection for a ride in FantasyLand and then give myself a few hours and book a second FastPass+ selection in AdventureLand, this way I can go on all the rides that typically have a shorter wait time while also remembering to factor in crowds, meals, bathroom breaks, etc. 

Book Fastpasses and Easily Use them in Walt Disney World Parks

Decide on Magical Extras

There are so many magical extras that you can incorporate into your Disney World Vacation.  From character makeovers for both kids and adults, dessert parties during the nighttime performances, and NBA Experience at Disney Springs to private tours, horseback riding, and boat rentals.  The number of things you can add to your Disney Plan is completely up to you.  Plus, Disney World even offers child care options for parents who need some time to relax.

Disney World Extras: Ways to Celebrate Any Special Occasion

A Pirate Makeover at The Pirates League Disney World Tips and Review

Disney World Child Care Options that are Available for Guests

Become a Princess at Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique in Walt Disney World

Getting Around Disney World

Once you have a good idea of what your daily itinerary is, you should take a look at Disney World’s transportation system.  One thing that makes a Disney World vacation run seamlessly is knowing what mode of transportation will get you to your destination the fastest and where each stop is.  As a complete Disney geek, I love using the resort’s transportation as much as I do the rides within the park.  

Disney World offers the Monorail, Skyliner, Ferry Boats, Buses, and Minnie Vans to help guests get around the resort.  This makes experiencing 4 parks in one day plausible, leaving a park to have lunch at a resort quick and easy, and exploring all of Disney property possible. 

During one of my trips, our goal was to see as many of the Christmas decorations and shows as possible, while also getting on Rise of the Resistance in Galaxy’s Edge in Hollywood Studios.  We started by taking the Skyliner from the Caribbean Beach Resort to Hollywood Studios to get a time slot for Rise of the Resistance, as soon as we had the slot we took a boat to Disney’s BoardWalk to see the gingerbread constructions at the area hotels before entering through the World Showcase entrance of Epcot to watch the carolers and get some holiday cookies.  From there we took the monorail to The Magic Kingdom with a quick stop at The Grand Floridian resort to see the gorgeous decorations and lifesize gingerbread house.  At The Magic Kingdom, we watched Elsa light up Cinderella’s castle while grabbing some hot cocoa on Main Street.  Next, we walked The Magic Kingdom over to the Contemporary Resort to catch a bus that brought us back to Hollywood Studios to ride Rise of the Resistance and watch the fireworks and snowfall down Hollywood Blvd.  This was a wild Disney Day, we ended it completely exhausted but the magic never stopped, it was packed to the brim with fun and I didn’t have to think about finding my keys, a parking spot, or bucking up the kids once all day.  This is an example of why Disney Transportation is a next-level genius!

Souvenirs and Things to Buy before your trip

While there is nothing like strolling the shops on Main Street USA or getting lost in World of Disney, you can quickly get overwhelmed and off-budget if you don’t have some sort of plan in place for Souvenirs.  When the kids were younger I would buy small gifts prior to our trip as I would come across them at the dollar store or on clearance at the Disney Store, then each day I would pull out a random prize for each of them while we waited for the fireworks or after a favorite character meet and greet.  One year I also picked up Mickey and Minnie stuffed animals for half the price at the Disney Store at the mall and gave them to the front desk when we dropped off our luggage, the kids came back to the room that night to a “special surprise from Mickey” they would get a surprise. 

At the end of our vacations, I would always let the kids think about what they had seen throughout the week and choose one souvenir to buy and bring home because sometimes having something from Disney World does make it extra special.

Some other things you may want to think about buying ahead of time are handheld fans or the kind that snap onto strollers if you have little kids in tow.  Fun coordinating Disney-themed outfits and accessories from Etsy, and if you are into pin trading you can often fin starter lots on eBay, just make sure they are authentic so you will be able to trade them.  Also, rain ponchos are a necessity in the summer months, you can save some money getting them off property, however, I must admit that the ones from the Disney Parks are cute and durable, we have been using ours for well over 2 years now.

Pull your Disney Vacation Itinerary together

At this point you have planned out how you are getting to Disney World, where you are staying, the parks you are visiting, where you are eating, the fast passes you are using, and how to get everywhere.  It’s time to pull it all together for your trip.  Have I mentioned My Disney Experience enough in this post yet?  Well, I’m going to brag on this app once more, prior to the app, I used to walk around with a printout of all our reservations, now everything is in one spot and the App shows us our itinerary every day. The only other place I plan is in my notes section on my phone, I have a quick list of must-see or try things and where they are located, such as character meet and greets with whichever character my children are currently obsessed with, or a new themed ice cream cone that everyone has been raving about on social media.  Once I’m in the parks, my mind gets swept away by the smells, songs, and smiles on my kiddos’ faces, so having a list to peek at while we are in line helps me remember some of the things I don’t want to miss. 

Also, while I love the Disney App, I am always trying to save my phone’s battery life during a day at Disney, so each morning I screenshot my itinerary from My Disney Experience Account and set it as my locked screen image.  This saves me from having to continuously open the app.

Character Meet and Greets at All of the Walt Disney World Parks

Where to Find all the Disney Princesses at Walt Disney World

Everything You Need to Know about Disney World’s First Aid Stations

Guide to Pin Trading at Walt Disney World

Disney Park Tips and Attraction Guides

If this is your first Disney World Vacation or if you haven’t visited in the last few years, check out these tips for making the most of your time in the Disney Parks and Guides to the newest Disney attractions.

Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge at Disney World – Planning Tips

Everything Star Wars at Disney World’s Hollywood Studios

Guide to Disney World’s Toy Story Land at Hollywood Studios

A Complete Guide to Visiting Disney’s Pandora – The World of Avatar

4 Animal Kingdom Attractions You Shouldn’t Miss

What to do at Disney Springs! Food, Shopping, and Fun

Don’t Miss Out on These Underrated Disney Attractions

Kidcot Locations and Unique Fun for Kids at Epcot

More Disney Planning Tips

Do you still want more tips and advice for planning your unforgettable vacation to Disney World?  Here are some great tips for saving money, saving time, and seeing what’s coming up next for Walt Disney World.

Savvy Ways To Save Money at Disney

What we Learned on our First Trip to The Magic Kingdom

New Disney World Attractions, Shows, and Lands Coming This Fall

Disney Parks D23 Announcements for Walt Disney World

Disney World Planning Guide

I hope you found these tips on how to limit time spent waiting in lines, saving money, and making the most of your time spent at Walt Disney World helpful, and after you experience the magic, you will be ready to start planning your next trip before you even finish your first!

Disney is a true passion of mine, please reach out if you have any questions that I didn’t answer in this planning guide, or to share your vacation stories.  See you at the castle!

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