Last May, Crystal Henry and her husband decided that they wanted to take a vacation in late August before their kids, ages 5 and 8, started school. But they weren’t sure about where they wanted to go. “We found discounted award fares on Delta, and we ended up using our points for flights to Orlando,” says Henry, who lives in San Antonio. The family immediately booked a deluxe studio room at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. However, they didn’t make a single reservation for meals or rides (called FastPass+) until they arrived.
“Our friends have gone to Disney with their kids and planned out every detail six months ahead of time,” says Henry. “Many came back stressed. They overscheduled themselves and couldn’t linger at spots they loved because they had to get to the next ride. That’s why we decided to plan as we went.” Ultimately, they had a blast being spontaneous, feeling free to head back to the resort pool when the kids got hot at the parks and even snagging last-minute tables at a few restaurants with characters.
Insane or genius? A little bit of both—experts say. Disney travel pros reveal how much advance legwork you really need to do to get the happiest vacation on earth.
How Far Ahead You Can Book: You can typically reserve airfare a year in advance.
Good-Enough Planning: Settle on a flight two to four months ahead—the window when you’re likely to lock in the best fare, says Gabe Saglie, an editor at Travelzoo.com. “If you can swing it, schedule your trip to begin and end on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, when fares are usually the lowest,” he says. “Try to avoid flying in and out of Orlando over the weekend, which tends to be the most expensive.”
Last-Minute Options: Airfare typically jumps within 14 days of a flight, so it’s not worth waiting that long to book. But occasionally you may get lucky and find a rock-bottom price on a flight that prompts a spur-of-the-moment vacay. Sign up for airfare alerts from your hometown airport to Orlando on the TripAdvisor mobile app to receive notifications when prices drop.
How Far Ahead You Can Book: You can reserve at a Disney hotel 499 days in advance (crazy, right?); many other hotel chains and rental companies allow you to book a year ahead. While you’re likely to get the best selection at this time, it’s not usually at the best price.
Good-Enough Planning: If you want to stay at a Disney hotel, book around the same time as you book your flight since sales on packages are usually for arrival dates up to four months in the future, says Don Munsil, president of Mousesavers.com, a website that organizes all the Disney discount offers. Another reason to lock in a room a few months ahead: Budget-minded Disney hotels like the All-Star Sports or Pop Century resorts and family-size villas with kitchens are usually the first to sell out, especially during busy times of the year like spring break and Christmas week. “If you find a better deal, you can change or cancel your reservation up to 31 days in advance of your trip without penalty,” Munsil says. On the other hand, staying outside of Disney doesn’t require as much advance planning. “After Las Vegas, Orlando has the largest number of hotel rooms of any U.S. city, so you’ll likely find good availability and prices even a month ahead of your trip,” Munsil says.
Last-Minute Options: Chances are, you’ll find a decent number—especially in summer, which draws families but not the convention crowd, says Munsil. Search trivago.com to quickly compare pricing of hotel rooms. Vacation rentals on airbnb.com or homeaway.com are another option, especially if you want a kitchen. Even at the last minute, you can find rentals for a family of four for under $100 per night.
How Far Ahead You Can Book: If you’re staying at a Disney hotel, you can make dining reservations for your entire trip 180 days before your vacation starts. If you’re staying off-property or haven’t booked a hotel yet, you can still make your first-day’s reservation 180 days in advance, but you’ll have to wait until the following day to book tables for the second day of your trip, and so forth. It’s easiest to search for reservations on the My Disney Experience mobile app, so download it.
Good-Enough Planning: First, think about how many reservations you really want, because your kids may be just as happy eating at the grab-and-go places at the parks, where there’s no rushing to get to your table on time. “We had one character lunch and ate at a couple of buffets, but for the most part, we found food when we were hungry rather than letting reservations dictate the day’s agenda,” says Henry. “That way, when the kids wanted to linger in the hotel pool or go on another ride, we didn’t have to say no.” Decide 60 to 90 days before your trip—that’s when reservations start to fill up at most restaurants. There are two exceptions, both in the Magic Kingdom: Cinderella’s Royal Table (dining with the princesses in Cinderella Castle) and Be Our Guest (a newish restaurant in Beast’s Castle, which includes a photo op with him) often fill up 180 days in advance. If either of these is on your must-do list, book it as soon as you can. If you can’t snag a table, Epcot’s Akershus Royal Banquet Hall (another dining spot with princesses) and the 1900 Park Fare at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa (breakfast with Mary Poppins, Alice in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter, Tigger, and Winnie the Pooh) are great alternatives.
Last-Minute Options: Rest assured, there are plenty of places to eat on the fly. “In the Magic Kingdom, I like the Columbia Harbour House,” says Len Testa, co-author of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2018. “There’s extra seating upstairs—a good place to decompress with the kids.” Most of the year, Epcot sets up food stands in the World Showcase area that are a perfect place for families to grab a fast bite, says Testa. And Woody’s Lunch Box, an adorable Toy Story–themed counter-service restaurant, will open at Disney’s Hollywood Studios this summer. You might even be able to score an eleventh-hour reservation at some of the most popular sit-down restaurants. “Disney charges $10 per person for reservations not canceled within 24 hours, so if you’re using the My Disney Experience mobile app, you’ll see a lot of tables open up 24 to 36 hours in advance,” says Testa.
How Far Ahead You Can Book: If you’ve bought your park tickets, you can make three FastPass+ reservations (which get you on rides with little or no wait) for each day of your trip 60 days in advance provided you’re staying at a hotel on Disney property (even if it’s not operated by Disney), and 30 days ahead if you’re not.
Good-Enough Planning: Book the passes as soon as you’re eligible. “If your plans change, you can rebook later or simply skip going on the ride,” says Testa. “There’s no downside to reserving FastPasses.” And the payoff may be enormous: “We didn’t book any and ended up waiting two hours for Animal Kingdom rides,” says Anita Kirkbride, of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
Last-Minute Options: Keep checking the My Disney Experience mobile app, because some FastPasses are released the day of, says Testa. And when you’re faced with a long wait for a ride, here’s something to consider: When Testa and his team asked thousands of kids what they enjoyed the most about their Disney trip, every ride ranked lower than parades, fireworks, and meeting characters. “Many parents think it’s all about the rides,” he says. “But for young kids, especially, it’s better to skip the two-hour wait for a ride and find a spot to watch a parade 15 minutes before it starts.”