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Planning Your Disney World Vacation

by Bonnie
Planning Your Disney World Vacation

In February 2017, we took two of our nieces to Disney World. Grant and I had previously been to Disney several times, both as kids and adults, however, this was the first visit for Corrina and Lisi. We talked about taking them for several years, but just never could make it happen financially. With them being nine and seven, we figured it was time to make this a priority.

Adult prices kick in at age 10, so we saved a little by purchasing child tickets for them. It wasn’t as much of savings as I was expecting, though (only $20 for a four-day park hopper for each ticket). While it may not be a big savings, every little bit counts.

Probably even more important, their youngest sister was only three. She was not quite old enough to know what she was missing and definitely not old enough to enjoy all the rides these older two could. That is another very important factor in our timing for this trip!

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Planning a Disney World Vacation

First, you need to make sure you understand just how big Disney World is. The Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, is more than just a theme park. The Disney World resort actually includes four different theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios) and two water parks (Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach). Additionally, Disney Springs is a shopping, dining and entertainment destination itself. And there are more than 30 Disney resort hotels. This just some of the fun at Disney World!

You simply cannot see and do ALL of Disney World in a day, or even two. Even a week-long vacation will only give you enough time to hit the highlights of the entire resort.

As you can probably tell, if this is your first trip you have a lot of research and planning to do!

Theme park hours for Disney parks.
Looking up the various theme park hours for each day is just part of my planning process!

I grew up in Florida and visited Disney World often as a child, but usually for just a couple of days at a time. We didn’t have to worry too much about in-depth planning since we always knew there would be another trip before too long.

This trip was much different. With it being the first visit for the girls, we wanted them to see and do as much as possible in the week that we were there. We stayed for six nights and definitely left without seeing everything!

So, before you make your reservation, take some time to do your homework. I consider myself a Disney World veteran, but still had to ask MANY people for advice and read tons of blog posts. You can check out our Disney World Pinterest Board to help you get started on your research.

When to Go to Disney World

The first thing you will have to decide is when to go. For most people, this will be centered on summers and holiday breaks since that is when the kids are out of school. The downside to that time it this is when everyone else goes, so the parks are at their most crowded.

If you go in the summer, it will feel like everyone in the world decided to go to Disney World at the same time as you! And it will be extremely hot. You will still have fun, but it definitely won’t be as pleasant as when it is less crowded and cooler.

Cinderella's castle transformed by thousands of white lights
Disney World celebrates the winter holidays in style! At this time of year, you can typically see Cinderella’s castle covered in thousands of white lights. Photo courtesy of Molly Griffin.

Consult a Disney World crowd calendar (such as this one) and plan your trip for one of the less crowded times, if possible. Trust me, you will enjoy the vacation much more!

We chose to visit in February because both our school calendar and the girls’ match up to have the week off. While this is not the least crowded time to visit, it was less crowded and much cooler than the summer, so we were happy!

Where to Stay when Visiting Disney World

Deciding where to stay could be one of your most difficult decisions. Personally, I prefer to stay on Disney World property. They have a wide range of hotels, priced for a wide range of budgets. They even have a campground, Fort Wilderness, which is where we stayed. At the campground, you can bring your own tent or camper or stay in a cabin.

The Disney World resorts vary from value resorts to deluxe villas and everything in between. A value resort during the low season could be near $100/night. A deluxe villa could cost close to $500/night in the summer.

A short list of Disney World hotels.
There are many options for hotels at the Walt Disney World Resort! You can easily find a hotel that matches your interests and budget.

Of course, just like any hotel, you will get what you pay for. A value resort will be comfortable, but will not have any extra bells or whistles. It will be a basic hotel with exterior doors. But it will have a fun Disney theme… something you can’t get at just any hotel. Of course, the more expensive resorts have more amenities. Some are walking distance to the parks and some have amazing themes and views.

Parking at the theme parks costs about $20/day and seems to increase every year. If you are staying off Disney World property, you’ll most likely have to pay to park every day. If you are staying on property you can ride the bus, monorail or boat easily from your resort. Or you can drive your own car and not have to pay the parking fee!

A really big Big Wheel at the Pop Century Resort.
Disney’s Pop Century Resort, a budget resort, is decorated with iconic memorabilia from the 1950s to 1990s. Photo courtesy of Molly Griffin.

If you do want to save some money by staying off property, my suggestion would be a hotel in Lake Buena Vista. These hotels are not technically on Disney World property but are right down the street from Disney Springs. Some even offer bus service to the parks.

Several years ago, we stayed at the Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista – Disney Springs Area and really enjoyed it. The hotel is exactly what you would expect from a Hilton with the extra benefit of being just about as close as you can get to Disney World.

Walt Disney World Extra Magic Hours

In addition to saving on parking, Disney World resort guests have access to Extra Magic Hours. Each day at least one of the parks opens an hour early or stays open an hour late, just for Disney World resort guests. This is a great way to get a couple of extra hours in the park.

Epcot is one of our favorite parks at night. The evening show is spectacular and the dining can't be beat.
Epcot is one of our favorite parks at night. The evening show is spectacular and the dining can’t be beaten.

And, because the park is only open to Disney World resort guests, there won’t be nearly as many other people in the park during extra magic hours. This means less congestion in the streets and shops. It also means much shorter lines for the rides! This can be a great opportunity to get on some of the more popular rides that always have long lines.

How Long to Stay at Disney World

How long you should spend at Disney World will, of course, depend on how much time and money you have. I would say you should also take into account how soon you might return to Orlando if you plan to return at all.

If this will be your ONE Disney World vacation, then I suggest staying for as long as possible. If you live closer and might be able to return in another year or two, then you might decide to save some experiences for the next vacation.

Disney World Ticket Prices

If you want to see the majority of the parks, you need about a week. When you look at tickets, the per-day price of a ticket goes down the more days you purchase. The price of a one day ticket depends on which park(s) you are visiting and the time of year.

Note: These tickets prices reflect Disney’s pricing as of February 12, 2017. Ticket prices generally increase once every year or two.

Per day ticket prices at Disney World
As you can see, the per day ticket price drops significantly the longer you stay.

A one day ticket to the Magic Kingdom costs more than a one day ticket to any of the other parks. One day ticket prices also depend on whether that day is deemed a value, regular or peak visitation day. Thus, a one-day park ticket could cost you anywhere from $99 to $119. Adding on the park hopper option (more on that in the next section) will add on about $50-$60, depending on the type of base ticket.

For a three-day adult ticket, you’ll pay about $97/day, but a six-day ticket will only cost you $65/day. These prices are good for any of the four theme parks but does not include park hopper (again, more on that below). Adding on the park hopper option will, again, add to the price. How much it adds depends on the number of days on your ticket.

The pool at the Fort Wilderness Campground proved irresitable to the girls.
The pool at the Fort Wilderness Campground proved irresistible to the girls.

Regardless of how long you stay, I strongly encourage you to build in one or two extra days that you won’t visit a theme park, if possible. Why? There is simply so much other stuff to see and do! Also, spending all day at the parks can be exhausting, so after a couple of days of “playing,” you’ll probably be ready to relax and recharge.

It is also fun to visit the resorts…even if you are not staying there, you can still visit. Other activities include shopping or dining at Disney Springs, playing mini-golf or riding horses at Fort Wilderness.

Disney World Park Hopper

When purchasing tickets, you’ll need to decide if you want to add on the park hopper option. This allows you to visit more than one park in a given day. This does add to the price, but it is a cost we think is worth it.

We love having the park hopper option simply for the flexibility it offers. If a park closes early, you can still spend the evening in another park. Or if you really want to visit Epcot in the morning because of Extra Magic Hours, but you can only get reservations at your favorite restaurant in the Magic Kingdom that night, you can do both.

Park hopper tickets allow flexibility in planning your Disney trip.
Park Hopper tickets allow you to spend your morning in Jedi Training at Hollywood Studios and still see Rivers of Light at Animal Kingdom that night.

Personally, we usually find ourselves “done” with Animal Kingdom in the early-mid afternoon. Having the park hopper allows us to spend more time at Magic Kingdom, which has many more rides than the other parks. Of course, now that Pandora – World of Avatar has opened at Animal Kingdom, you’ll probably be able to truly spend a full day there.

There are plenty of people who disagree with this recommendation. Ultimately, you will have to decide what is best for you. We like the flexibility, but it is definitely possible to enjoy the parks and see and do everything you want to without the park hopper option.

All tickets include in and out privileges for one park. So even without park hopper, you can arrive early, go back to the hotel for lunch or an afternoon nap, then return to the same park for dinner and the closing shows.

Making Your Disney World Reservation

When you’ve answered all these questions, you are ready to make your reservation. You can do this online or you can call Disney and talk to a person. If you are a complete Disney World newbie, you may even want to work with an authorized Disney World retailer (travel agent), such as Magical Vacation Planner, to book your package.

We have purchased tickets from AAA in the past, where you can usually get a small discount. We have not used any other travel agents to plan a Disney World vacation.

While I generally like to do as much online as I can, I did call Disney World for our reservation. We wanted to stay for about a week, but the campground was showing as not available. Upon speaking to a representative, I found out that it was just one night that wasn’t available. So we arrived on Sunday instead of Saturday. It could have taken a lot of trial and error online to figure that out.

I suggest booking your trip as early as possible. We traveled in mid-February, which is only a moderately busy time. I ended up making our reservation in mid-November and got one of the last remaining campsites. Granted, we probably could have gotten a reservation at a different resort, but we are glad we didn’t have to change our plans.

The nice thing about booking your Disney World vacation early is that you only have to put down a $200 deposit. The rest is due one month before your arrival date. By making the reservation early, you have plenty of time to save up or make payments.

What’s Next?

Making the decisions necessary to simply be able to make a reservation can be time-consuming and overwhelming. But, unfortunately, if you really want to maximize your time and get the most out of your vacation, there is still much more to consider and plan! Thankfully, this can also be a lot of fun, especially if you are a planner, like me.

My Disney Experience App

If you haven’t already, you need to download the My Disney Experience app on your smartphone. This app will allow you to research and plan all the details of your upcoming trip. On the app, you can find wait times, make FastPass selections, explore dining options, find park hours, and much more.

Fireworks over Cinderella's castle
The My Disney Experience app will help you plan all aspects of your Disney World vacation. You can even keep track of which park you want to be in for the evening show/fireworks.

Disney World’s FastPass+

The Disney World FastPass system has been around for many years. This program allows you to reserve a time for a ride, show or even a character meeting in advance. Having this reservation will reduce the amount of time you wait in lines. Shorter lines allow you to see and do more each day!

Disney World made some fairly significant upgrades over the last couple of years, and now this system is now called FastPass+. FastPass+ allows you to reserve a time for up to three activities with reduced wait times. Unlike some other theme parks, FastPass+ is free for all park visitors!

Having a Fastpass will significantly decrease your wait time on many rides.
Having a Fastpass+ can save you a lot of time waiting for rides.

You can schedule your FastPasses well in advance of your arrival at Disney World online or with the My Disney Experience app. For guests staying at a Disney World resort, you can start scheduling FastPass+ experiences 60 days before you arrive. Other guests can schedule them up to 30 days in advance.

Of course, you can always make changes after the window opens, but if you want the best options, you have to grab them quick! Some of the most popular rides will have FastPasses “sold out” long before you arrive.

You can schedule three experiences per day in advance on FastPass+ (all must be in the same park). Once you have used all three FastPasses, you can them schedule additional rides one at a time (including at a different park).

Don't forget to select Fastpasses when planning your Disney trip.
Our nieces enjoying Thunder Mountain at Magic Kingdom. Not having to wait in a long line makes the rides even more fun!

The My Disney Experience app makes scheduling FastPasses convenient, especially once you are at a Disney World park. In the event you do not have a phone, or the battery dies, there are kiosks in the park that you can use to add to or make changes to your FastPass experiences.

This process of scheduling FastPasses can get confusing and overwhelming. There are tons of websites and blogs that can help you determine how to best schedule your FastPass selections. One of my favorite websites for advice on Disney World FastPass+ scheduling is this one.

Disney World Dining Reservations

Every Disney World planning article will tell you to make dining reservations early. And while that is certainly true, as restaurants fill up quickly, please remember that you don’t have to have reservations for every single meal.

While the restaurants at Disney World are typically amazing, they are also pricey! Personally, we cannot afford to eat in a table-service restaurant every single day, much less every meal, of our trip.

While Bonnie loves her Dole Whip, Grant's weakness is a roasted turkey leg. There is just something so carnivorous about it.
While Bonnie loves her Dole Whip, Grant’s weakness is a roasted turkey leg. There is just something so carnivorous about it.

We planned two restaurant meals in advance and ate at quick-service locations (and there are lots of good ones) or brought our own food for the other meals. Quick service restaurants typically are either cafeteria-style or counter-service, much like fast food or fast-casual restaurant. And, yes, you can bring your own food into the park.

If you prefer a restaurant with table service, you will most likely need reservations. It is possible for you to get a reservation at the last minute, but options will be limited. We have gotten last-minute reservations in the past, but you do have to understand that it just won’t happen with certain restaurants.

You can make dining reservations up to 180 days in advance. We actually had dining reservations before we had made our vacation reservation! If there is a particular restaurant or character meal that you are interested in experiencing, the sooner you make a reservation, the better.

Again, there are tons of websites about Disney World restaurants. One that I like is the Disney Food Blog.

Disney World Dining Plan

There are also several different Disney Dining Plans that you can buy. With the dining plan, you are basically pre-paying for lunch, dinner, and some snacks each day. I have never purchased one, so I can’t tell you much beyond the basics.

If there is one treat you simply must not miss at Disney World, a Dole Whip is it. A whipped pineapple concoction, served with or without rum, is THE treat on a hot day.
If there is one treat you simply must not miss at Disney World, a Dole Whip is it. A whipped pineapple concoction, served with or without rum, is THE treat on a hot day.

One plan is for quick-service restaurants only. One plan is for table service restaurants only. There is also a dining plan that allows one of each.

They will occasionally do a promotion where the dining plan is free with your vacation reservation. If that is the case, I would definitely take it, but only if that is the best deal out there. Often times you have to choose between the dining plan or a discounted room rate. Again, there are tons of websites dedicated to Disney dining. Foodies should research food options well in advance.

Memory Maker

Memory maker is an option for anyone with a Disney World resort reservation. Paying for this (about $150 if purchased in advance) allows you to download any photos taken by Disney World PhotoPass photographers inside the park for free. This includes ride photos, entrance photos or just random pictures taken at iconic locations throughout the parks.

Animal Kingdom's Everest ride photo
Memory Maker allows you unlimited downloads of rides photos such as this one. Photo courtesy of Molly Griffin.

While it is pricey, one price does cover your entire group. If you know that you are likely to forget to take pictures yourself, Memory Maker may be a good option.

Magic Bands

Magic Bands simplify your Disney World experience. Guests wear the all-in-one device like a bracelet. Your magic band will allow you to unlock your Disney World resort hotel room door, enter theme parks, check in for FastPass+ attractions and even charge food and merchandise to your account (if activated).

If you are staying on Disney World property, each member of your party will automatically receive a Magic Band as part of your package. If you are not staying on Disney World property, you can purchase one in the parks or online.

Personalized Magic Bands
Magic Bands are your key to your Disney World vacation! Personalize your bands before they ship one month before your trip!

You can personalize each Magic Band with each person’s favorite color (lots of good options) and name. The Magic Bands will ship to your home about 30 days before your trip. Make sure you customize your bands online or through the app before that deadline.

Your Disney World Daily Itinerary

Now it is time to think about exactly where you will go and what you will do each day. While it is possible to just “go with the flow,” having some sort of plan will help you to get the most out of your trip.

You’ll need to determine the basics of this before you make your FastPass+ reservations. But remember that there will be MANY rides and shows that you don’t have a FastPass for. Determining which ride you’ll head to first and what shows you really want to see will help you to get the most out of your vacation.

How to use the My Disney Experience app
Use the My Disney Experience app to keep track of your FastPass+ reservations and other shows you want to see!

We were most interested in the Star Wars experiences at Hollywood Studios. I used the app to list out all the Star Wars activities. Then I planned how we could fit it all in. There is nothing worse than realizing that you missed something because you didn’t do any advance research or planning.

Of course, it is easy to go overboard with this, especially if you are a “planner” like me! Grant constantly reminds me to not get too wrapped up in this. That said, the Star Wars stuff really excites him.

The My Disney Experience app will help you to not just research the various rides and shows, but also to keep track of what you want to do when.

Are You Ready?

I rarely feel I am completely ready before a vacation. I never feel the homework is done. So, if you are like me you will have spent tons of time researching and planning and will still feel like you forgot something.

Before we left, we knew what parks we plan on visiting each day, determined by where Extra Magic Hours were offered. FastPasses were selected (and reviewed more times than Grant would like)! Restaurant reservation were made. We had a basic plan for our one day of not going to the theme parks.

No matter how much advance planning you do, things will change… And that is ok. While you’ll want to get the most out of your vacation, it is a vacation so don’t let yourself get too stressed!

Whatever happens, have fun. Remember, sometimes spontaneous decisions are the best ones!

Be sure to read our One Week Disney World Itinerary article to see exactly how we spent our time and what additional suggestions we have for you.

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Our guide to planning your Disney World vacation, including when to go, where to stay, ticket options and how to make the most of your visit.
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