So, you’ve decided to take your family to Disney World. Woo hoo! You’re in for an amazing trip!
Maybe you took your first steps towards planning by typing “Disney World” into Pinterest. Immediately, you felt your stress level rise by ALL THE INFORMATION.
Are you already overwhelmed by Disney World planning? Feeling like you’re swimming in information overload? Not ready to make Disney World trip planning your full time job?
You are definitely not alone!
Disney World is huge and Disney World planning can quickly become all-consuming.
But, all you really need are a few basic steps and you’ll soon be on your way to the Most Magical Place on Earth. If you’re short on time, here are the basic Disney World planning roadmap:
- Learn basic Disney World 101
- Figure out how long to stay at Disney World
- Familiarize yourself with Disney dining
- Choose a Disney Hotel
- Pick Disney World tickets
- Make your Disney World reservations
Yes, you can spend an hour or two every evening for the next six months planning every detail of your trip. But you certainly don’t have to. All you really NEED is a simple plan and some basic knowledge. So, let’s get started and review the basic elements of Disney World planning…
1 – Disney World 101
Before you do anything, educate yourself just a little on what exactly Walt Disney World is. This will go a LONG way to avoiding surprises and overwhelm once you’re on vacation. It’s always better to spend a little extra time now that will make your actual vacation time so much smoother!
First, be aware that there are four theme parks at Disney World and know little about each one.
Magic Kingdom is the park with the castle. It’s what many people refer to as “Disney World” although Walt Disney World is so much more. It’s the first and original park at Disney World where many of the classic rides are including Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain, It’s A Small World, the Mad Tea Party, and Pirates of the Caribbean. This is the one park you MUST visit even if your trip is just one day.
Epcot is essentially two parks in one: Future World and World Showcase. Future World has popular rides including Test Track and Soarin’ Around the World. And, yes, there’s a ride in the “big golf ball” named Spaceship Earth. Epcot is also where the festivals occur: Flower and Garden Festival in the spring, Food and Wine Festival in the fall, Festival of the Holidays in late fall, and Festival of the Arts in winter.
Hollywood Studios is home to Disney World’s newest lands: Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Toy Story Land. The Star Wars franchise has a huge presence here so if you have budding Jedis in your family, Hollywood Studios is a must-visit. Hollywood Studios is also where you will find some of the most thrilling rides at Walt Disney World including Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster (the only ride at Disney World that goes upside down) and Tower of Terror.
Animal Kingdom is the park with live animals, in case the name didn’t make that obvious! There are animal viewing paths similar to zoos, shows, and rides. It’s where Pandora – World of Avatar and the popular Flight of Passage ride, the Expedition Everest roller coaster, and an actual safari ride are located.
Beyond the four theme parks, Walt Disney World has even more to offer.
Disney Springs is a shopping and dining district. If you live in a decent-sized city with a substantial shopping and dining scene like I do, you might not find Disney Springs all that impressive. There is great dining there and space to walk around if you find you’re done in the parks with a few hours left in the day. But if you want to concentrate on things you can’t do at home, don’t sweat it if you can’t fit Disney Springs into your vacation schedule unless any of the shopping, dining, and other activities specifically appeal to your family.
More than 20 resort hotels at Disney World offer more than just a place to rest your head each night! You do not need to be a hotel guest to visit the hotels and many near the parks have fantastic dining options. The resorts can be a great way to escape from park crowds for a few hours during the day as well.
Disney World also offers two water parks, golf courses, mini golf, horseback riding …you could easily spend a month there and not experience everything that is offered!
Recognize that Disney World is BIG. You’ll need to use the complimentary transportation or drive yourself between the parks, most resorts, and other locations within Walt Disney World. Don’t underestimate the time it will take to get from one place to another and expect to be in too many places each day.
2 – Figure out how long to stay at Disney World
The four Disney World theme parks are full of activities including rides, shows, character meetings, parades, and nighttime shows with and without fireworks.
Depending on your family’s preferences, you may want just a half day to three full days in each park. My free One Page Guides to Disney World Attractions offer attractions summaries for each park, height restrictions, whether the attractions or queues are indoors or out, and a popularity indicator. Download them to help you determine how much your family will want to do at each park and, therefore, how much time you will spend.
Magic Kingdom has the most rides and attractions of the four Disney World theme parks. It’s the park with the most rides for little kids and should be a priority for young families. If you have little kids, look on the One Page Guide to Magic Kingdom Attractions for rides with no height restriction. That’s a good general guide for identifying kid-friendly rides.
You can spend one day in Magic Kingdom, but will be rushed and you won’t do it all. Ideally, plan on two days to see most attractions, repeat a favorite or two, and have time for afternoon breaks.
Epcot is doable in one long day as long as there aren’t any festivals going on, but is also preferable to split into two days. That second day is ideal if you plan on enjoying festival food and offerings in addition to the regular attractions.
How many days should you spend at Disney’s Hollywood Studios? The better question is: How much do you love Star Wars? If you’re not a Star Wars fan, you can easily see all of Hollywood Studios in a day or less. Tentatively plan on an evening at Disney Springs or resort hopping if that’s the case. If you love Star Wars, you’ll definitely need a full day and maybe two, especially to repeat favorite attractions.
While somewhat light on attractions, Disney’s Animal Kingdom is huge on entertainment, immersive theming, and live animal viewing. One day is pretty much the rule for most people visiting Animal Kingdom. If you focus solely on rides, you probably won’t even fill a full day. If you take time to also walk the animal paths, enjoy the street entertainment, and just marvel at the theming details, you will have a full and relaxing day.
Ideally, if you have one week, consider planning your Disney World trip this way:
- 2 days at Magic Kingdom
- 2 days at Epcot
- 1 day at Hollywood Studios
- 1 day at Animal Kingdom
- Partial arrival and departure days at Disney Springs and other activities outside of the parks
You should also become acquainted with FastPass+, Disney’s FREE service that allows you to make reservations for certain Disney World attractions in advance. FastPass+ can literally save you hours of standing in line each day. If you have a Disney World park ticket, you have FastPass+ so use it! I’ve written all about FastPass+ in my Disney World FastPass+ Tips and Guide.
3 – Familiarize yourself with Disney dining
There are entire blogs devoted to Disney food! At the very least, simply be aware of the types of dining locations you’ll encounter and make reservations if necessary.
Reservations are required at table service restaurants including character dining and buffet/family style dining. Less popular restaurants may have space for walk-ups, but always plan on making reservations at restaurants that take them.
At character dining locations, characters will come to your table, interact, pose for photos, and sign autographs, when able (not all characters sign). This can be a great way to meet characters without waiting in line at the parks.
Quick service restaurants do not require reservations with one exception: breakfast and lunch service at the Beauty and the Beast-themed Be Our Guest in Magic Kingdom. These are counter service restaurants where you place your order at an attended podium and find your own table. Most quick service restaurants also offer mobile ordering via the My Disney Experience app. Definitely use mobile ordering to save time whenever it is offered.
While quick service restaurants offer large seating areas, there are also numerous food windows and kiosks throughout the parks that do not. Some of these locations serve substantial snacks and limited meal menus, but there may only be a few benches or a couple of tables (if that) nearby. These dining locations are great for a snack on the go such as soft serve ice cream, chicken nuggets, jumbo pretzels, and Mickey ice cream bars.
So, how should your plan your meals while at Disney World? It’s quite common to make one table service or character dining reservation each day, guaranteeing a place to relax for a while and enjoy a meal while the other meals of the day are spontaneous and on the go.
Dining reservations open 180 days in advance, so you’ll need to plan early if you have your eye on popular restaurants like Be Our Guest or Cinderella’s Royal Table (the restaurant in the castle at Magic Kingdom). Visit Disney’s dining webpage for your numerous dining options. For quick service, print my One Page Guides to Quick Service Restaurants so you’ll be prepared to make decisions about other meals quickly.
Also be aware that you may bring outside food into Disney World, just not in coolers. Always check Disney’s current list of prohibited items before your trip. Packing a few granola bars is A-OK and some people even pack full meals and find a table to eat.
If you’re staying at a Disney World hotel, Disney offers a prepaid meal plan for guests staying on-site, the Disney Dining Plan. Your prepayment provides you with a bank of credits that can be used on meals and snacks during the length of your stay. The Disney Dining Plan has the potential to save you money, but there are definitely pros and cons to consider before buying the DDP. Read my post about why the Disney Dining Plan isn’t a good choice for my family, but might be advantageous for yours.
4 – Choose a Disney Hotel
There are more than 20 hotels at the Disney World Resort and staying off-site is also an option.
Don’t choose a hotel solely based on a friend’s recommendation. Every family has different needs and with two dozen hotels on Disney property, you’ll find the right hotel for you.
There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to both on-site and off-site lodging, especially considering the size of your group, your budget, and Disney perks. I’ve discussed these in Why You Should Stay at Disney World Hotels on Property. Link to on site vs off site advantages post.
In order to decide the right hotel for your family, you need to determine what criteria is most important to you.
Use my One Page Guide to Choosing a Disney World Hotel to address all of these criteria and easily compare room features and resort amenities.
If price is the biggest factor when choosing a hotel, start with resorts in the value category and work your way up through moderate hotels.
- All Star Movies Resort
- All Star Music Resort
- All Star Sports Resort
- Pop Century Resort
- Art of Animation Resort (Little Mermaid Standard Rooms only)
Do you have a larger family that needs more space? These resorts have room categories that sleep 5:
- All-Star Music Resort (family suites)
- Animal Kingdom Lodge (suites)
- Art of Animation Resort (family suites)
- Beach Club Resort
- Boardwalk Inn
- Cabins at Fort Wilderness
- Caribbean Beach Resort (5th sleeper)
- Contemporary Resort
- Coronado Springs Resort (suites)
- Grand Floridian Resort
- Polynesian Village Resort
- Port Orleans Riverside (5th sleeper)
- Wilderness Lodge (Deluxe Room)
- Yacht Club Resort
Looking for the best pool? You can’t be Stormalong Bay, shared by Disney’s Yacht Club and Beach Club Resorts.
Is location important? Some Disney resorts are incredibly close and convenient to specific parks. The Contemporary Resort is the only resort with a walking path to Magic Kingdom. The Boardwalk Inn, Beach Club Resort, and Yacht Club Resort are all great options beside Epcot and Hollywood Studios. If being able to walk to a park or take boat transportation instead of bus or car, these hotels might be for you. Location is one of many indicators in my One Page Guide.
What about theme? Port Orleans Riverside has princess-themed Royal Guest Rooms with queen beds that sleep 4. Caribbean Beach Resort offers pirate-themed rooms with double beds that sleep 4. Polynesian Village Resort has a tropical South Pacific theme while Wilderness Lodge and Fort Wilderness are great for lovers of the great outdoors. Theming is also indicated in my One Page Guide.
Choose the hotels that most closely match your criteria and see what’s currently available for your trip dates on the Disney World website!
5 – Pick Disney World tickets
Discount Disney World tickets don’t exist except for military discounts. A few reputable sites including Undercover Tourist offer tickets at a small discount, but your best bet is just to buy them from Disney World directly. Never buy tickets off eBay or other online marketplaces!
Be aware that ticket prices fluctuate throughout the year so you can often get the best discounts simply by going at the right time of the year. In general, that’s when American kids are in school and the parks are less crowded.
Unless you decide to buy an annual pass, you’ll be purchasing a ticket for a specific number of days. The average daily price of park tickets drops the longer you stay, quite drastically on tickets longer than 4 days. Tickets of 4 days or more don’t vary so greatly in price. For example, the difference in ticket price from a 4-day ticket to a 7-day ticket can be as little as $50. So, for only $50 more for each person in your group, you may spend three more days in the parks!
These are your Disney World ticket options:
- 1 Park Per Day base ticket – access to 1 park each day (you may leave the park, but must return to the same one in the same day)
- Park Hopper Option – access to multiple parks each day
- Park Hopper Plus Option – access to multiple parks each day plus water parks, mini golf, and more
If you only plan on visiting one park each day, stick with the 1 Park Per Day base ticket for simplicity. Remember that Disney World is huge and transportation between parks adds more time when park hopping.
However, if you want your plans to stay loose and spontaneous, get the Park Hopper Option. That way, if you leave one park for an afternoon break and want to go to a different park in the evening, you’re free to do so.
Water park access can be included in the Park Hopper Plus Option, but they can also be purchased a la carte so compare prices if you’re considering time in the water parks.
6 – Make your Disney World reservations
Resort reservations open online in June every year for the following calendar year, although you can call to make hotel reservations over the phone as much as 499 days in advance. So, many people start planning early.
Ideally, you should be planning your Disney World vacation at least 6 months in advance. This is based on the earliest step in a Disney World trip planning timeline. Dining reservations can be made 180 days from the first day of your trip. Reservations for popular restaurants, such as Cinderella’s Royal Table, can easily fill up on the morning on this 180-day mark. For that reason, especially if you have dining priorities, it’s a good idea to have a rough outline of your trip completed 6 months in advance.
If you’re staying at an on-site Disney World hotel, you can book FastPass+ 60 days out. If you’re staying off-site, you can book 30 days in advance. You must have valid park tickets already purchased for each person in your group to make FastPass+ reservations.
Several months before your trip, make airline reservations if you’re flying to Orlando.
Could you also be making reservations for more events and activities that aren’t mentioned here. Oh, yes!
As I’ve said, you could stay at Disney World for a month and still not do everything. There are fireworks dessert parties, VIP tours, Sunday brunches, afternoon tea parties, special resort events … the list goes on and on.
This blog post could easily be ten times as long with valuable information, but I know you’re already overwhelmed and just need to feel that you can GET STARTED! You now have a solid start and are well on your way to planning a magical vacation!