When my husband suggested we take our almost-three-year-old daughter to Disney a few years ago, we both launched into major research mode. After some of the planning and searching I’ve done on other trips, I was expecting this to be a bit of a nightmare, especially with a toddler. After how well that trip went, when my dad suggested another Disney trip this year before her 5th birthday, we were excited to head back and immediately started planning again!
This most recent time around, we also went with another family so with our two kids, there was a 2.5-year-old and an almost-5-year-old in the mix. While this certainly required a bit more planning and research into the height restrictions for rides (and shuffling schedules around to accommodate everyone’s must-dos), the overall planning of a Disney World trip is surprisingly not complicated at all and there are really only three things that MUST be done before you get there.
1. Hotel and Tickets
Unless you happen to live really close by, you’ll need a place to stay while you’re down there. Thankfully, there are plenty of options available in every budget so the perfect place to sleep between park visits is out there. Twice we’ve stayed on site but this last trip, we also had the opportunity to stay off site as well, which provided an interesting perspective.
On-Site vs Off-Site Reservations
Many people immediately assume that staying at a Disney resort is going to be more expensive than staying off site but this isn’t necessarily true. Of course, while you CAN spend $500+ per night on lodging, this doesn’t mean you HAVE to. Disney has a line of value resorts that start at a very reasonable rate and they even have a campground if you want to go that route while still taking advantage of the benefits of staying on site. On-Site benefits include:
- Free transportation from the resort to parks and back via bus, monorail, or boat
- Complimentary transportation between the airport and resorts
- Free parking in the hotel and a parking pass for the Disney parks
- Access to the Disney Dining Plan
- Free magic bands when you book a hotel and buy tickets (a $13 value per band) with names printed inside
- The ability to charge purchases to your room via magic band so you don’t have to carry any cards or cash in the parks
- Plan on shopping a lot? Disney gives you the option to have your purchases sent back to your resort for pickup the following day
- Access to extra magic hours in the morning or evening at select parks each day
- Schedule FastPass+ selections at 60 days out. Off-site guests have to wait until 30 days out
But what about the price of staying off site? That has to be a huge savings, right? Well, it can be but there are also going to be extra expenses that may make that great deal not so great. Our last trip, we stayed three nights on site, with two days in the park, then another week off site, with four days in the park. Staying on site meant we parked the car and didn’t touch it until we were ready to check out because we used the resort busses to get around Disney. While some nights, this meant waiting for a bus (or taking another resort’s bus back and walking), we also didn’t pay for parking and the bus dropped us off near the gates. For the other four days in the park, we paid for parking each day ($20 each day in May 2016). Plus, you could be looking at the cost of renting a car if you fly in and need to get around during your trip. On top of that, it took longer to get to into the parks those days, involving at least a tram from that section of the parking lot to the gates. Magic Kingdom was the worst. We actually took the tram from the parking lot to the ferry docks and then rode the ferry or monorail over, all while managing a child, bags and stroller.
For more information about the on-site benefits, their value, plus off-site alternatives, check out WDW Prep School’s Benefits of staying on-site at Disney World.
If you’re staying on site at Disney, you’ll have the option to book just a room or buy your tickets at the same time. While buying just the room at a discount and purchasing your tickets separately can save money, it’s also very convenient to purchase your room and tickets together at once. Sometimes, Disney will also include specials with the vacation package such as a free memory maker photo pass or free dining plans. These are all things that can save money and are definitely worth keeping an eye out for!
For more details on this, check out MouseSavers.com: Walt Disney World Room Only Reservations vs. Vacation Packages. They have a very thorough pros and cons list of going with the package deal or booking only the room that is well worth checking out, and the rules following each on when you need to pay and what needs to be paid ahead of time.
Both times we have gone, we’ve done the vacation package. The convenience of having everything together and set up in one swoop was worth it to keep trip planning as simple as possible. Of course, this is just what worked out best for us at the time. While there were some deals to get the hotel and tickets a little cheaper, it was worth the few extra dollars to make sure everything was done without any issues.
For a little extra bonus, check to see if your local grocery stores have any deals on gift cards before you pay for your entire package. Ours had 10 cents off a gallon of gas when you bought $50 in gift cards. Since we were spending the money on the rooms and tickets anyway, we took advantage of this as well and saved some money on fuel leading up to our trip!
2. Dining Reservations or Event Reservations – 180 Days Out
If there are any must-sees or must-dos that require reservations, you MUST plan on getting those in right away. Dining and event reservations start at 180 days before the trip (180 + 10 days for guest staying on site). Reservations usually require a credit card to hold but nothing will be charged ahead of time. You can also cancel any reservations made 48 hours prior so even if you’re not sure, set the reservation ahead of time and change it if need be. Things like character meals, the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, first haircuts at the Harmony Barbershop, The Pirate’s League pirate makeover, etc. will all require reservations and some can fill up really fast.
Extra Magic Hours
While you’re deciding when to make your dining and experience reservations, at this point you’ll have to really think about which days you’re going to be in which park. Certain restaurants and places require a park admission (such as the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique in Cinderella’s Castle or Hollywood and Vine in Hollywood Studios) so before you make your reservations, you want to decide which park you want to be in that day. Please note: extra magic hours are a perk that is only available to guest who stay on site!
Check out the extra magic hours schedule at the Disney World Park Hours & Calendars page.
There are two main thoughts on Extra Magic Hours: those that take full advantage of them and those that purposely avoid them.
For the group that takes advantage of the extra magic hours, you typically get an extra hour in the morning or two hours in the evening at select parks. Each day is different so it’s entirely possible to plan a trip and spend each day at a park with extra magic hours. This can be a great way to have extra time to see more attractions that day or get more done. However, there are two downsides. First, all on-site guests have access to the extra magic hours and these can be very busy days in the parks. The other thing is that if you are planning on really taking advantage of the extra hours, you may be spending all day in the park. An example of this with Magic Kingdom, when the extra magic hours are in the evening, would mean the park is open from 8:00 am – 1:00 am the next day. That is a LONG day. Another option, if you get the park hopper with your tickets, is to enjoy the extra magic hours in the morning at a park and then head to a different one when it starts to get busy or come back for the extra magic hours in the evening.
For those that avoid extra magic hours, while there may be less time in the park overall, there’s no shortage of time and the parks typically aren’t as busy. This isn’t always the case though! Even though we avoided the extra magic hours on our trip, Magic Kingdom both days we went recently was still really busy. This could have just been the timing of our trip. With the parks less busy, even if there are less hours available in the day, lines should be shorter so you’ll still get a chance to do about as much. Traveling with two kids was also a reason we decided to skip the extra magic hours. While both kids did great in the park, even the oldest one was completely done around 10pm, which was way past her bedtime.
3. FastPass+ Selections – 60 or 30 Days Out
Want another bonus of staying on site at a Disney Resort? Those staying on site can make their FastPass+ selections 60 days before their vacation starts while those staying off site can schedule them at 30 days out. With most FastPass+ options, this isn’t as critical as the dining and event reservations but there are some notable exceptions for really popular events. If you’re looking to score a FastPass+ to see Anna and Elsa, your best chance is to set an alarm for early in the morning at 60 days out to try and get it because they go extremely quick even now.
Download the My Disney Experience App
If you have a smartphone, you’re going to be using this app for a lot of your trip. Disney has created a really good app to help you navigate the park and get the most out of your trip. The app gives you the ability to:
- Manage your account
- Connect with friends and family you’re traveling with
- Check wait times
- Schedule FastPasses
- Make dining plans
- View the photos taken with the photo pass
- Use an interactive map that lets you filter by attraction, characters, dining, entertainment, photographers, and even restrooms.
In the planning phases, one of the most useful aspects of the app is the wait times.
While there are plenty of guides out there with FastPass+ recommendations, sometimes being able to see first hand what a ride’s actual wait times are throughout the day is extremely helpful in deciding what’s worth scheduling ahead of time.
A tip on wait times based on our experience: Rides with a 15 minute or less wait time are essentially a walk on ride. Keep in mind though that everyone at the park has access to this information. If you see a popular ride with a short wait time and think that would be a great time to go see it, you won’t be the only one with that idea. Usually, this worked out really well for us but there were a couple of rides on this last trip that ended up having a longer wait time because everyone rushed to take advantage of that.
Schedule Hard To Get FastPass+ Options
If you’re not really sure what you want to see or do, find out what the popular FastPass options are for each park you’re planning on visiting and schedule those. Examples would be the Seven Dwarves Mine Train in Magic Kingdom, Kilimanjaro Safaris in Animal Kingdom, Test Track at Epcot, Toy Story Mania at Hollywood Studios, etc. You want to secure FastPasses for the rides that end up with 1 hour+ long wait times so you can skip that entirely. If you end up changing your mind and want to do something different, it’s easy to switch from these to something else. Trying to switch to the long wait time rides later? That’s much harder to do.
Prioritize Must-See Attractions
If you’re looking for the absolute minimal Disney planning possible, at the very least, look at what the must-see things are and plan on those. If there’s a particular character your child absolutely HAS to see or a particular ride someone is dying to ride, these are the must-see items for the trip.
For a much more detailed Disney World planning guide, be sure to check out the Disney World Trip Planning Guide from Disney Tourist Blog. Find up-to-date information for your trip, suggestions on when to visit, how long to stay, where to stay, airfare and transportation, what to pack, where to eat, information on attractions, and more!
Are you the type of person who wants a more specific plan for getting the most out of each park during the time you’re there? Definitely check out WDW Prep School! They have attraction information, dining information, and touring plans for each park, including 1 or 2 day plans for most parks and plans for those going with young children. They also have a lot of other great information throughout the site on everything Disney and the surrounding area.
They don’t call Disney World the happiest place on earth without good reason. It truly is a great place for a vacation and you and the family will have a blast. Get the essentials done listed above and go prepared for anything. Be flexible because not everything will go according to plan but that’s ok. There may be a meltdown, a shortened day for a number of unplanned reasons, or it could rain and rain and rain. You know what though? Seeing the first glimmer of Cinderella’s castle, your child’s face light up at the chance to meet their favorite character in person, or even just enjoying a Mickey shaped cake pop while watching an incredible fireworks display makes it all magical and worth it.
Have a fun trip and enjoy the magic of Disney!