Recently, a friend of mine told me she was “terrified” to plan a trip to Disney! “Say what?” I asked. “Disney? It's the Happiest Place On Earth! What could be scary about that?” She said she had no idea HOW to plan a Disney vacation because it is so overwhelming!
“Never fear,” I said. As a former Cast Member and someone who has been a guest to Walt Disney World Resort more times than I can count (likely more than 50, maybe close to 100), as well as traveled to Disneyland Resort in California, Disneyland Paris, on Disney's cruise ships, traveled to Disney's Aulani Resort and Spa, and am a member of the Disney Vacation Club, I am the right Mousketeer to help plan a magical trip to Disney.
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Okay, let's start by making sure we are talking about the same place. Wearing my Cast Member ears for a minute – when you say “Disney”, technically, you aren't really talking about one place. There are a lot of Disney properties around the world, and you want to get to the right one, right? So, let's clarify this.
Walt Disney World Resort is in Orlando, Florida. It is the second of the famed theme parks, the original being Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California.
There are several properties around the world, but for now, let's stick to the two main resorts in the United States. Sometimes people say they are going to “Disney” or “Disneyland Florida”. But there is no such thing as Disneyland Florida. There is only Walt Disney World Resort or Disneyland Resort.
The biggest difference between Walt Disney World Resort and Disneyland Resort – aside from their locations and some of the attractions – is their size.
Disneyland Resort in California has:
All of it is close together and walkable.
Walt Disney World Resort is huge! It has:
It is not walkable to get in between the theme parks (except for Disney's Hollywood Studios and Epcot), which is why the transportation system is so handy. You could easily spend two weeks at Walt Disney World Resort and not see everything.
Both Walt Disney World Resort and Disneyland Resort are wonderful for different reasons. But this post will focus on helping you plan a vacation to Walt Disney World Resort because it can be tricky to navigate.
I can't tell you how many adults I know who won't take their kids to Walt Disney World Resort because THEY don't want to go. They say their kids are too young. Their kids won't remember it or they won't like it. HOGWASH! It's DISNEY.
Most kids would have a hard time being miserable at Walt Disney World Resort. I'm sure there are some out there somewhere, but the vast majority will LOVE it.
And, quite honestly, you – the adults – will feel like a kid again. Nothing wrong with that! What I love about Walt Disney World Resort is enjoying things through the eyes of my kids, and being reminded of my own childhood.
Ok, so you are ready to plan your trip to Disney. Guess when is THE BEST AGE to take your kids to Walt Disney World Resort? EVERY AGE!
Why? Because there is something for every age and stage at Walt Disney World Resort. Don't believe me? Read on!
Ok, I'm biased. I took my oldest son to Walt Disney World Resort for the first time when he was three-months-old. My twins were five-months-old on their first trip to see Mickey and the gang, and all three had their first haircuts on Main Street USA at the barbershop.
Not only are there attractions for every age, including more than 90 with no height restrictions, the kids literally grow up with Disney.
I am a believer that Walt Disney World Resort is not a destination, but an entire experience. Some may even say it is a state of mind.
One of the reasons I have loved taking my kids to Walt Disney World Resort at each age and stage is that each vacation is entirely different. But each vacation has been both magical and special, with lasting memories for our family.
Here is a list of attractions suitable for kids preschool age kids and younger at Walt Disney World Resort.
Here is a list of attractions school-aged kids will enjoy at Walt Disney World Resort.
Here is a list of attractions tweens, teens, and adults may enjoy at Walt Disney World Resort.
When to travel to Walt Disney World Resort is important because certain times of year are much busier than others. In some cases, it can be insanely busy.
Florida's weather can factor into your experience. In the middle of summer, it can be dangerously hot, and thunderstorms are a regular occurrence. In the winter, it can actually get chilly at night!
If you are crazy crowd averse, I would avoid Thanksgiving and Christmas. Though Disney and Christmas go hand in hand, and there is a lot of very merry Christmas at Walt Disney World Resort, you have to balance if it is worth it to weather the crowds. It is a special time of year, so perhaps you are content with just taking in the magic.
Another time that can be extremely busy is during “spring break” season and Easter week. As a general rule, the times when most kids are out of school is when everyone has the same great idea: to travel to Walt Disney World Resort!
When I was a Cast Member, I worked in the park the day after Christmas. I can't tell you how disappointed so many people were that they were shoulder to shoulder everywhere they went. When I say this time of year is crowded, I mean they often close the theme parks. Now, that's crowded!
And trying to enjoy any attractions or dining without a FastPass+ or Advance Dining Reservation during this time will result in pure disappointment.
If you chose to travel to Walt Disney World Resort during the busier times, keep these tips in mind:
If you want to just go and enjoy the special holiday activities during Christmas or any other holiday, Walt Disney World does a fantastic job. Be sure to check out:
If you travel to Walt Disney World Resort in the summer, just know that it will be extremely hot and thunderstorms happen often, sometimes daily. You may want to plan your park days for the morning.
In the winter, it can get chilly. Pack pants and sweatshirts for this time of year!
Speaking of which, do you need a packing list? Download my FREE travel planner and packing list.
If you want the least crowded visit and have flexibility in your schedule, traveling to Walt Disney World Resort in “off times” may result in lesser crowds. By lesser, I mean there will still be crowds, but they are more manageable than the really busy times.
You may find more “pardon our appearance” signs during these times, as this is the time when Disney utilizes for refurbishments. But, you will have more success with shorter wait times for attractions and an easier time finding FastPass+ and Advance Dining Reservations.
You won't regret this. If you stay on-property of a Disney Resort Hotel, you stay in the magic of the “bubble.” Disney is an EXPERIENCE, not just a destination, and the Disney Resort Hotels offer as much magic as the theme parks. You also get perks, including:
As soon as you book your Disney Resort Hotel and are within 180 days of your dates, book your Advance Dining Reservations. Dining fills up quickly, especially character meals and more popular restaurants like Ohana, Be Our Guest Restaurant, Cinderella's Royal Table, to name a few.
We usually book a handful of Advance Dining Reservations just to have them. If you plan to dine inside one of the theme parks, you will need to have a park ticket to enter. You also need to hold the reservation with a credit card and have up to 24 hours in advance to release them without charge.
This is critical. For one thing, downloading your My Disney Experience App to your phone allows you to keep all of your Fast Pass+ experiences and Advance Dining Reservations in one place. You can also check wait times and utilize the Mobile Ordering feature from this app. My Disney Experience also includes maps of the parks and is searchable.
To book your FastPass+ Experiences, you will need to buy your theme park tickets. Once you do that, and you can link your My Disney Experience account to your tickets (if they aren't already linked.) Then, you can go on My Disney Experience and book FastPass+ experiences for everyone in your party.
This will help you avoid long lines for some of the more popular attractions. It also assures that – especially you are there during a busy time – you will have attractions reserved.
Book your Fast Pass+ experiences in the morning or as early in the day as possible. Once you use your three Fast Pass+ Experiences, you can add more one at a time.
On a recent trip during the very busy Easter week, we did this repeatedly and ultimately enjoyed six Fast Pass+ experiences on one of the busiest days of the year. You can then enjoy other attractions by waiting in line or enjoy dining or shows – like the parades – in between your Fast Pass+ experiences.
For your best chance of maximizing your day, DO take advantage of Extra Magic hours if available, as the theme parks are less crowded then. If you arrive at opening, you will also find the theme parks less crowded and can often get on the more popular attractions this way.
Ok, it seems strange to say you need a strategy to enjoy Disney. You do need to have some sort of plan, but you also have to remain flexible. And, remember, this is YOUR VACATION. What you define as a successful vacation will differ from your friends' or family's definitions. So, decide what YOU want to get out of your Disney experience.
We like to enjoy the attractions in the front of the theme parks first (depending on the park) and then start moving toward the back. Our other strategy is to enter the park and hit the more popular rides, and then circle back for ones the lines move fast or the wait time isn't as long.
If our goal is to maximize the attractions we ride, we will even zig-zag through the park, using our My Disney Experience app, based on which attractions have the shortest wait times. Other times, we aren't in the mood for rushing, so we just take breaks, enjoy long meals, and enjoy the magic as we go.
You DEFINITELY need to be flexible if you have toddlers or younger kids with you, as you never know when the Disney magic will fizzle out and a break from all of the walking is what they need.
But being flexible can have benefits. From just walking up and asking, we have gotten seated at popular restaurants, found attractions with low wait times, and have had days at the Magic Kingdom that wouldn't have gone as well if we had not remained flexible.
There is so much more to Disney than just the theme parks. Remember, Disney is an EXPERIENCE, not just a destination.
You can enjoy horseback riding, mini-golf, water parks, shopping, and the myriad of activities at Disney Resort Hotels, all on Disney property. And, because you are on Disney property, you feel every bit of magical enjoying these experiences as you do in the theme parks.
The truth is that Disney is wonderful, magical, and….let's be honest, exhausting. You can easily send your Fit Bit in a tizzy from all of the steps from walking around the park. And, do we need to even talk about the excitement and over stimulation of the sights, sounds, and people?
To truly enjoy Disney, we like to plan off days in between. We use these days to do one of the non-theme park activities mentioned above.
A day to sit by the Disney Resort Hotel pool or visit Disney's Typhoon Lagoon, hotel hop on the Monorail or just stroll through Disney Springs, really helps make sure we return from our Disney vacation still loving Disney. After all, you are supposed to return to life and school recharged after a vacation!
Not at all. First, you can only book three Fast Pass+ reservations at a time anyway. Once you use your three Fast Pass+ reservations, or if you cancel one, you can add more one at a time.
Regardless, you will stand in line for several attractions outside the Fast Pass+ experiences, if that is how you choose to spend your time in the theme parks. Your My Disney Experience app will help you navigate this as you can monitor wait times of other attractions.
You will find more Fast Pass+ reservations even as your day goes on as other people release theirs (say if their plans change or they get a better time.) A Cast Member recently told us that – at present – Disney releases more Fast Pass+ times mid-day, every day. If you have three Fast Pass+ reservations already, you have to either cancel one of them or use them before you can book more.
Typically, there are always Advance Dining Reservations available, but you may need to be flexible on times. If you have your heart set on a particular dining experience, you can keep checking the My Disney Experience app up to 24 hours in advance to see if someone releases their reservation and you can grab it.
You can also always try to walk up and ask if the restaurant if they take walk-ins. We were able to successfully secure seating at Be Our Guest restaurant and Ohana, during one of the busiest weeks of the year, just by walking up and asking if they could take us! You also have the options of quick service and Mobile Ordering on the My Disney Experience app.
You certainly don't have to, but I highly recommend it for the benefits (see above) and the convenience. It is so much easier to get around to the parks and get back for a mid-day rest.
You get the whole Disney experience from morning to night and really feel transported during the whole of your vacation. There are also Budget, Moderate, and Deluxe resorts, as well as campgrounds, so there is a range of lodging options for every budget.
You also don't need a car if you stay at a Disney Resort Hotel. You can take advantage of the complimentary Disney's Magical Express to get you to and from the airport, as well as Disney's convenient and complimentary on-property transportation to get you anywhere you need to go on property.
Magic Bands are your “key to the world.” If you stay at a Disney Resort Hotel, you will receive complimentary Magic Bands, though you always have the option to buy thematic one if it suits your fancy. The Magic Bands sit on your wrist like a watch and are used as:
Every member of your party will need their own unique Magic Band.
Park Hopper tickets allow you entry to multiple parks in one day. For example, you can spend your first half of the day in Magic Kingdom Park and have dinner in Epcot.
This is a very personal choice. Park Hopper tickets are more expensive. However, if you are only allotting two park days, I recommend them.
The first time my husband ever went to Disney was when he was 25 years old on our honeymoon. We only had two days to see as much as possible, and boy did we ever. So, in this case, a Park Hopper was useful.
Nowadays, we usually pick two or three parks we want to visit with our kids and just plan to spend the whole day at one park. So, I would say evaluate the amount of time you have, what are your “must-do” activities, and then decide from there if you think you will get the value out of the Park Hopper tickets.
Yes, you can. However, beginning in 2019, Disney released new rules regarding stroller size. Strollers must be less than 31″ wide and less than 52″ long. Most strollers should fit within this range, but you should definitely double check before you go. You would not want a nasty surprise when entering the park.
We always found umbrella strollers worked best in the park. They made it easier for folding down if necessary and for parking. You will find stroller parking areas near most attractions. We also found using our Ergo baby carrier a lifesaver when our son was an infant.
You can also rent one of Disney's strollers for the older kids. They have both a single and double stroller offering.
Not at all! Remember the Rider Switch option! This is when one of your members can't ride an attraction, one adult stays with the non-rider while the other enjoys the attraction. Then, when the adult returns, they can switch spots and the returning adult supervises the guest while the other one can enjoy the attraction without having to wait in the original line.
Check with the Cast Member at the attraction to make sure Rider Switch is available and find out where to board the attraction. Here is a complete list of attractions at Walt Disney World Resort that accommodate Rider Switch.
Check out this great guide to using Rider Switch.
Well, this is a very personal decision. If you have a week or two to spare, then you could easily spread out your vacation and enjoy much of what Walt Disney World Resort has to offer.
I think a week is a great amount of time, but you can also do a lot in a couple of days. It all depends on your party, ages of kids, and goals of your vacation. Luckily, Walt Disney World Resort has so much to offer, you can customize to your family's needs.
The Disney Dining Plans are great options if you are traveling on a budget, and would rather prepay for a certain number of meals, snacks, and beverages in advance. There are three different plans to choose from, and pricing depends on the length of your stay. They are available for guests ages three and older:
We don't use the Disney Dining Plan, because we have found that we don't use the benefits of the plan. Instead, we prefer to pay as we go and have the flexibility to change course with our dining as each day unfolds. We also like to order groceries to our room for breakfast and snacks.
For our family, the Disney Dining Plan becomes more expensive because we don't use it all. But for many families, it is a great option because it is very convenient and they use it all, so it makes it a value add. Just be sure and think through if it makes sense for your family.
You worked hard to plan your Disney vacation, and you'd like to remember it right? This is where the Disney PhotoPass may come in handy. Cast Member photographers will capture your magical memories at various spots, during Character Dining, or during that frightful descent on the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Family memory gold!
By tapping your Magic Band, your photos will be linked to your My Disney Experience account. From there, you either purchase Memory Maker (if you haven't already) to download unlimited access to your photos and videos for one price. You can purchase individual photos as prints or downloads.
You don't have to purchase any of them if you are just as happy capturing your Disney vacation with your own camera.
A Walt Disney World Resort vacation is an amazing family experience. The most important thing is to plan a Disney vacation that works for YOUR family. Because after all, it's about spending time together.
You can't really do Walt Disney World “wrong.” Do plan ahead, but also remain flexible. And, never fear. You can have an amazing Walt Disney World Resort vacation, without planning it all out six months in advance, to the very minute. Because some of our best Disney vacations have come from changing course during the trip.
Flying into Walt Disney World? Check out my post on TravelingMom for your complete guide to Orlando International Airport (MCO.)
Looking for a great resource for planning your Disney vacation? Check out Disney World Hacks:2020 Edition by Dia Adams.
You will also love this post with tips from several travel bloggers on 14 Most Common Disney Mistakes (and how to avoid them!)
What are your favorite Disney planning tips? Comment below!
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