The Ultimate Disney World Planning Guide
Four months before her trip, Lucia Hurley started planning her family's first overnight to Walt Disney World. "It wasn't soon enough," says the Marathon, Florida, mom. "We were a group of 12, including relatives, and we couldn't get reservations at several restaurants despite the fact that my mom kept checking back. I was even more bummed that there were no appointments left at Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique to get my 4-year-old a princess hairstyle."
Lesson learned: Jump on Disney plans early. "If you delay booking your room, meals, and rides, your family will probably miss some things they wanted to do," says Len Testa, author of the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. Besides, Disney rarely offers last-minute discounts, so usually there's no financial upside to waiting if you'll stay on property, adds Don Munsil, president of Mousesavers.com and dad of two. So how far in advance do you need to get the ball rolling? Follow our custom timeline to optimize and organize your trip. Game on!
9-12 Months Before You Leave
Kick Off the Planning
With the staggering number of places to stay (26 Disney-owned resorts and Disney Vacation Club options, ten more resorts on Disney property, and hundreds of others in and around Orlando), more than 135 Disney restaurants, and 150-plus rides and experiences, you're going to need a couple of months just to wrap your mind around this trip. Make these tasks your priority:
- Narrow Down Your Hotel
Disney resorts are generally a little more expensive than comparable options outside the gates, but by staying at one you get a ride to and from the Orlando airport, access to "Extra Magic Hours," when parks are open only to resort guests, and first dibs at dining and ride reservations (more on that later). Another benefit: If you have kids who need to nap, the convenience of being able to more easily return to your room in the middle of the day is practically priceless, says Debra Martin Koma, the editor of Allears.net. Emily Furlani, Parents art director, whose kids are 6 and 13, wouldn't do it any other way. "By staying inside the park, we can have downtime by the pool each afternoon, which helps the trip be more relaxing," says Furlani, who has visited nine times as a mom. Testa suggests ID'ing two hotels that best fit your budget, plus one that's 20 to 30 percent above your current price range, in case you find a deal. (Furlani's fave: Disney's Wilderness Lodge, for its boat launch to Magic Kingdom and its low-key vibe.) But if you plan to visit other Orlando theme parks, such as SeaWorld or Universal Studios Florida, consider staying off property and renting a car. "You can offset the cost of your car rental with the money you'll save not having to eat at Disney for every meal," says Munsil. One new option: The B Resort & Spa, which is located about ten minutes from the Magic Kingdom, SeaWorld, and Universal. It offers rooms with bunk beds, has a fun pool with water features plus a family game room, and starts at $149 per night in the spring and summer.
- Determine How Long To Stay
Two schools of thought on this for first-timers: Munsil advises taking a four-day introductory trip to get a feel for each park, then coming back a year or two later for your blow-out vacation. "It's hard to know what will appeal most to your family until you get there," he says. "You may think the kids will be all into the characters and they might just want to ride, ride, ride, or spend part of every day at the hotel pool." On the other hand, Testa thinks you'll be tempted to cram too much into every day on such a short trip. "Plus, your airfare and ticket prices for four and seven days will be about the same," he says. "Your cost per day decreases the more you stay." Testa also notes that his satisfaction surveys show that the happiest families took longer Disney trips.
- Start Pricing Airfare
It's unlikely that you'll find "the deal" nine months out, but you will get a general sense of the cost. Search flights on Kayak.com; it will tell you whether airfare is dropping or rising. If you have any wiggle room in your dates, use the "three days before" and "three days after" function on the site to look for the best price. Generally, flying in and out on a Wednesday is cheapest. Once you know the likely airfare and hotel costs, you can come to terms with your budget. "Many travel agents have told me their clients are surprised by the expense -- they knew it was going to be pricey, but not that expensive," says Testa.
- Sign Into My Disney Experience
Download the app (free for Apple and Android) or, on the computer, log on to MyDisneyExperience.com and set up a profile. When it comes time, use the service to link Disney hotel reservations, reserve meals, customize MagicBands, note flight times, and choose your FastPass+ experiences. Once you're in a park, you can use the app to check wait times, find characters, and see the start for parades and fireworks.
7-8 Months Before You Leave
Make Some of Your Key Decisions
In a couple of weeks you'll be able to book dining. If a reservation at the hot Be Our Guest Restaurant or a coveted table with a view at 'Ohana during the fireworks is on your must-do list, start with the first tip below; otherwise jump ahead to the second one.
- Reserve a Disney Room
Think of it as a placeholder. You can cancel or change most hotel-only reservations within five days of arrival without paying a penalty. "If you're staying at a Disney hotel, make your dining reservations 180 days in advance of the first day of your trip, plus book tables for ten subsequent days," says AJ Wolfe, founder of The Disney Food Blog and mom of a 22-month-old. "If you're staying off property, you can't make the subsequent-day reservations -- you have to book one day at a time." (The one exception: No matter where you're staying, the only time you can make reservations at Cinderella's Royal Table, another popular Magic Kingdom spot, is 180 days in advance.)
- Sketch Out Your Ideal Plan for the Parks
Coordinate which restaurants fit best with your park schedule, rather than vice versa, although you may have to make some concessions if you want to eat at the most popular places. Where to begin? "We started and ended in the Magic Kingdom," says Tyra Haag, a mom of three from Knoxville, Tennessee. "We went to Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom on the middle days." Aalap Shah, of Chicago, who stayed for nearly a week, suggests you can skip Epcot if you only have a toddler. "After half a day there with my 2-year-old, I took the monorail back to Magic Kingdom," he says. "She loved the parades and Frozen princesses far better than anything at Epcot." (However, Epcot -- with its cool Test Track and Soarin' rides, plus the Disney Phineas and Ferb Agent P's World Showcase Adventure experience -- is great for kids ages 5 and up, notes Testa.) My Disney Experience shows which parks are open early or staying open later for resort guests when you're visiting. (All Disney-owned properties plus Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin and the Hilton in Downtown Disney are eligible.) Use this to your advantage. "Our kids, ages 7 and 9, are big Star Wars fans, so they wanted to do the Jedi training in Disney's Hollywood Studios, but sign-ups are first come, first served. Our strategy was to do it on the day when the park had morning Extra Magic Hours," says Heidi McIndoo, from Framingham, Massachusetts. "We walked directly to the attraction and even though some time slots were already taken, we were able to grab one of the few remaining."
180 Days Before You Leave
Book Your Tables
You can get a sense of what's going to be the most difficult by using My Disney Experience and searching for reservations on dates that are just slightly earlier than yours. Some other things to consider:
- Prioritize a Be Our Guest Restaurant Reservation
"It's by far the hardest one to get," says Testa. "Up your chances by booking at 6 a.m. EST on your first eligible day and trying for a date toward the end of your trip; fewer people would qualify to reserve on that day."
- Settle For Any Party Size
If you can't get your family of five into the restaurant you want the most, try for a table of four. "As long as you're in the system, the restaurant will try to accommodate your change in party size on-site," says Testa. "I've often gone from a group of four to eight, for instance, without a problem."
- If You Book a Late Time, Show Up Early
Most restaurants will try to seat you sooner if you arrive before your scheduled time. Fair warning: Arriving after a missed reservation doesn't work so smoothly!
- Don't Overlook Resort Restaurants
Ideal for breakfast or a late dinner, they're often less crowded than places to eat inside the parks. At the recently renovated Polynesian Village resort, Wolfe recommends 'Ohana. "I love that the breakfast there is family-style rather than buffet so we don't have to keep getting up from the table with our toddler," she says. If you're looking for dinner after a day in the Animal Kingdom, she suggests Sanaa at Animal Kingdom Lodge. "My son stared out the floor- to-ceiling windows at the animals while my husband and I lingered over our meal," she says. If Italian food is your family's favorite, try the new Trattoria al Forno, at Disney's Boardwalk Resort. The restaurant makes its own mozzarella cheese and pasta; it also always uses gluten-free breadcrumbs in dishes such as the meatballs and chicken parmesan.
4-5 Months Before You Leave
Settle On Your Hotel
Even if you already booked a place in order to get a jump on dining plans, it's time to firmly commit.
- Look for Deals
Scope out Disney's discounted promotions about four to six months in advance of the season when you'd like to stay, says Munsil. (For instance, last winter Disney offered 10 to 30 percent off rooms at most resorts for a spring stay.) If you booked a full-price room, he says you can now call to switch to the promotional price. Or if you were comfortable with spending that amount of money, you might be able to upgrade to a different resort or a more spacious room without adding to the total cost. Buying your hotel, dining plan, and park tickets together may not save you more money than buying them individually -- and you'd have to cancel within 45 days of arrival or you may face a penalty, says Munsil. Figure the costs for each before you commit to a bundled deal.
- Ponder the Dining Plan
If you're staying at a Disney resort, you can pay a fixed price for your meals and snacks in advance so you'll have to shell out little or nothing while you're there. While about a third of eligible visitors opt for one of the five plan choices, some experts think you might spend less on food if you simply pay as you go, in part because you wouldn't necessarily order dessert with every lunch and dinner, and the dining plans allow for that. "We do the math every year, and you have to get the most expensive meals at each restaurant and order every included course for you to seriously save money by using the dining plan," says Wolfe. What if Disney promotes a discounted dining plan, or even offers one for free? Munsil cautions that you should still price out your options; if you're getting a deal on the meal plan, you're probably paying full price for your hotel room.
30-60 Days Before You Leave
Time To Schedule Your Favorite Rides
If you're staying at a Disney resort and have bought your tickets, you can book three Disney experiences 60 days in advance so you don't have to wait in the full line. Otherwise, you can book them 30 days ahead of time.
3-4 Weeks Before You Leave
Tie Up Loose Ends
Your trip is just around the corner. Just a few more things to do!
- Customize Your MagicBands
Each member of your party will receive one of these personalized rubber bracelets if you're staying on Disney property. It serves as a room key, park ticket, FastPass+ holder, and more. Now's the time to finalize each band's color and add a name; they'll all be mailed to you. Our video, below, shows how they work.
- Order Groceries
Disney allows you to bring food and drinks (as long as they're not in coolers) into the parks, so pack snacks and a water bottle, which you can re-fill at water fountains. Also consider eating some breakfasts in your hotel room. "We preordered from GardenGrocer.com and scheduled the delivery for our arrival day. We got five days' worth of breakfast food, portable snacks, plus diapers and wipes for my baby niece," says Parents entertainment editor Jessica Hartshorn.
Don't forget your MagicBands and Magical Express tickets that were sent to you if you're staying at a Disney hotel; the latter give you a free bus ride to and from the airport.
- Get The Family Psyched
You're going to Disney World!