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2021 Disney World Planning Guide | How to Plan a Disney Vacation

Planning a trip to Walt Disney World in 2021 or 2022? We know it’s stressful, but don’t worry, our Disney World Vacation Guide will give you everything you need to know to get ready for your upcoming trip!

Disney World Vacation Planning Guide

Whether you are looking for information about the Disney World Parks, hotels, dining, transportation, the best rides, how to save money, or how to avoid the crowds, we have you covered in this guide. Think of it as Disney World Vacation Planning 101.

This guide is especially great for beginners who have never been to Disney World, or go rarely, but we also pack in a lot of good tips for regular guests too.

While we do have some of the most important tips & info on this page, we don’t have ALL the answers directly written out here. This guide organizes some of the best Disney planning content into categories giving you an overview of what you are looking for and then links to more in-depth guides on each subject.

In this post we will specifically cover:

  • How to Plan a Disney World Vacation
  • What You Need to Know BEFORE Going
  • When to Visit Disney World in 2021 & 2022
  • Important Disney Vocab
  • Where to Stay
  • Buying Tickets
  • Rides & Attractions
  • Dining & Restaurants
  • Disney Planning Timeline, & more…
How to Plan a Disney World Vacation

Since this guide covers a lot of the planning steps of your whole trip in general, if you are looking for specific info on the Disney World Parks, then check out the following links:

Unfortunately, Disney World is one of the most complicated vacation destinations in the world. We know planning a Disney World vacation has become one of the most frustrating exercises and you’d just like to be there already having fun. Hopefully, we can help you do that as painlessly as possible.

We’ve been going to Walt Disney World multiple times per year since the early 1980s when we were babies, and we continue to spend way too much time there today trying all the new food, rides, events, and hotels. To say we are huge Disney fans would be an understatement.

The byproduct of countless hours spent visiting Disney World, means that we have some valuable tips that we are eager to share with you. We aren’t going to lie, it will take some work on your end. But in the long-run, it will be invaluable for your trip. Let’s get right into it…

Changes in 2021

Going to Walt Disney World in 2021 is a MUCH different experience than normal. Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave for the last year, you know that the parks actually closed in 2020, and since then Disney has installed dozens of new procedures to let guests back to the parks.

Changes to Disney Vacation Planning

Thankfully after being open once again in the last 6 months of last year and already into 2021, things are slowly getting back to “normal.” The new restrictions take some getting used to, but we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

However, going to Disney World in early 2021 will be a lot different than later in the year or in 2022 when there should be fewer restrictions and the vacation experience should be “close to normal” once again. Just know some of the information in the guide will not apply in the short-term because of all the changes.

I wish we could say with certainty what the rest of 2021 is going to be like, but the only we are sure of is uncertainty itself. It’s possible fireworks will be back by the end of the year, as well as stage shows, FastPass+ and character meets, but we can’t say for sure. Our guess is that at least half of the restrictions will be gone, but that’s just a guess and it will take time.

Japan EPCOT fireworks

One event that should bring some sense of normalcy to the parks in 2021 is the 50th Anniversary of Walt Disney World. That kicks off officially on Oct 1, and it’s our feeling Disney would like to have a lot of the entertainment back by then. That should be a great time, and if you are worried about the changes, going any time after that will be best.

By the time 2022 rolls around, we should see the Disney World experience mostly back to normal, with perhaps some lingering safety precautions. Again, we’ll have to be patient and see unfortunately considering the unique situation we are all living.

That’s what to expect this year, now get’s get into some of the Disney vacation planning basics.

How to Plan a Disney Vacation

Planning a trip to Disney World

Believe it or not, some of the most important planning steps of your Disney World trip happen as much as one year BEFORE your vacation starts, or even more.

Some things you are going to have to think about are:

  • What dates do I want to go? Are those dates flexible?
  • What is my budget?
  • What type of hotel do I want to stay in?
  • How many days do I want to go to te theme parks?

The most important suggestion we can give you is to get organized. The more work you do before your trip to plan everything out, the easier things will be for you and your family once you get there.

Can You Go to Disney World Without Planning?

As always in life, what you CAN do and what you SHOULD do are two entirely different things, and that is also true in this case.

Yes, it is physically possible to go to Disney World without planning your trip, but I would highly recommend against such an action. Organizing everything out for months ahead of time is a lot of work and a big pain, but it is vital if you want to have a successful trip.

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train Magic Kingdom

Your choice of hotel will be severely limited if you don’t book it well in advance. You won’t be able to get dining reservations to the best restaurants in Disney World. You won’t be able to book FastPass+ reservations that are any good. Right now, you might not even be able to get into the parks without a prior reservation.

If you are looking to go to a destination where you can just “wing-it” and not have to make any plans ahead of time, we recommend choosing another destination besides Disney World.

How Do I Start Planning a Trip to Disney World?

STEP 1: Write down notes. There are going to be a lot of details, prices, and dates to remember so get a dedicated notebook for your upcoming trip. If you prefer, you can take notes on your phone or computer, but make sure you have a way of jotting down notes in a convenient place where you will be able to find them.

STEP 2: Set a Budget. Make no mistake about it, a trip to Walt Disney World is expensive and costs can add up very quickly. So before you start choosing how many days you want to stay, your hotel and ticket types, make a budget. It will be much easier to organize your vacation if you already have an idea of how much you are willing to spend.

STEP 3: Get familiar with Disney World. Even if you are not ready to book your vacation yet, start reading up on Disney World and familiarize yourself with all the locations, attractions, restaurants and special events. A website like this is one way to do that, but also look through the official Walt Disney World website and download the My Disney Experience app on your mobile device.

STEP 4: Choose your Dates. These don’t have to be written in stone, but we recommend at least having some idea of when you would like to plan your trip for. Later in this guide we will show you how to decide those dates.

Once you get these four things done, you are ready to start planning the details.

When Should I Start Planning My Disney Trip?

Tree of Life Animal Kingdom

When is the best time to start planning a Disney World vacation? We recommend to start planning as soon as possible, but at least one year before you plan to go.

The sooner you start planning your Disney vacation, the better. In fact, once you finish reading this guide, you should start writing ideas down for your trip.

As you will see in our vacation planning timeline, some of the first steps can be completed as many as 499 days before your vacation starts.

We believe the sooner you start the process of organizing your trip, the better. Starting now will give you a leg up on other guests when it comes to getting reservations for dining, hotel rooms, the parks and FastPass+. I will also make you aware of discounts to save money on your trip.

What Do I Need to Know Before Going to Disney World?

Here are 9 main things to know about Disney World before going:

  • There are 4 Theme Parks in Disney World: Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom
  • There are 2 Water Parks: Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon
  • 25 Resort Hotels to stay in.
  • There are countless Outdoor Activities to do such as swimming, fishing, golf, boating, and more.
  • WDW has 5 golf courses and 2 mini-golf courses.
  • Disney Springs is the nighttime entertainment hub with dozens of first-class restaurants and shops
  • You can catch a Dinner Show at Mickey’s Backyard BBQ, Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue, and Disney’s Spirit of Aloha Show
  • It is a self-contained city with its own fire department, water treatment, waste disposal and power generation.
  • Disney World is HUGE at 25,000 acres. That means travel time can be long between two places.

How Many Days do you Need for Disney World?

How to plan a Disney Vacation

There is really no wrong answer to how many days you need for a trip to Walt Disney World, and it depends on many factors, including if this is your first trip or not.

  • The ideal Disney World vacation is 7 days long. That allows for 2 travel days (arrival and departure), and 5 open days to visit the parks and have fun.
  • The bare-minimum we recommend for first-timers is 5 days, ideally with an early arrival and late departure.

In fact, most Disney World vacations are between 4 to 7 days long. That gives you enough time to visit all the theme parks at least once, and have extra time for staying at the resort and swimming or shopping.

If you want to visit any other Orlando-based attractions like Universal Studios for example, you can still do that with 6-7 days.

It’s possible to visit Walt Disney World in only 3 or 4 days, but you will feel very rushed. You can make the highlights of each park, but you won’t really have time to do all the rides, see all the shows and take in the details.

Disney Trip Planning Guide

One thing to keep in mind is the longer your trip, the less you pay per day for your park tickets. So in a way, it’s advantageous to stay longer than only 5 days.

If you have the time and money, we recommend doing a 9 or 10-night stay and really taking the time to soak it all in. That gives you enough time to visit all 4 parks multiple times, and have days off to relax.

How Much Does a Trip to Disney World Cost?

Let’s get to the bottom line…how much does a Disney World vacation really cost?

Everyone has different budgets, so the cost is going to depend on how many days you go, how many people are in your group, and how you like to vacation.

The major costs to consider for a Disney World vacation are:

  • Hotel Room
  • Park Tickets
  • Food
  • Airfare
  • Souvenirs/Shopping

We’ve made our estimated costs based on a family of 4 on a 5-Night vacation to Walt Disney World, with 4 days of theme park passes.

For a family of 4, a Walt Disney World vacation in 2021 costs: $4,301.46, $4,839.56, or $7,271.46. These prices include the above expenses and are broken down our price estimates into 3 categories: Budget, Moderate, and Expensive.

  • For a family of 2 adults, the prices change to: $2,696.20, $3,139.20, or $5,201.20.
  • For a family of 3, the prices change to: $3,498.83, $3,989.38, or $6,236.33.
  • For a family of 5, the prices change to: $6,288.09, $6,710.74, $8,306.59.

Of course, there are many more factors to take into consideration, especially the time of year you visit. We calculated these prices based on a Summer vacation, but they can change by hundreds of dollars in either direction, so keep that in mind.

Read our post on the Average Cost to go to Disney World for more details and how to save money on your trip.

Should I Use a Disney Travel Agent?

2 bedroom suite Wilderness Lodge

One option you might want to consider is using an authorized Disney Vacation Planner when planning your trip. Even though there is a ton of great information on the internet to read, sometimes it’s just too much and you prefer having someone take care of the work for you.

The nice thing is most Disney travel agents don’t cost any extra money to work with. That means you can have someone personalize your trip for you, make the tough reservations, all for free. In fact, most of the time, using an agent will actually SAVE you money since they know when the discounts come out.

Using an authorized Disney vacation planner, your trip will be much better organized, less stressful, and save you money.

If you like the hands-off approach to trip planning, we highly recommend Rene Cittadino from Show You the World Travel. We’ve worked with Rene and her team of experts many times before and she is our Disney Travel Planner of choice.

Contact René at Show You the World Travel for all your trip planning needs, including a FREE quote.

List Your Priorities

There is way too much to do at Walt Disney World, no matter how long your trip is. That means you need to make a priority list of must-dos.

Is there a restaurant you absolutely must go to? Write it into the schedule. What are the attractions you have to do at each park? Which shows do you want to see? Which characters?

When we are planning a trip to Disney World, we put all the must-dos in one column and then find a place for them in the program. We also have a secondary list of things we’d like to do if time allows, and we fill in the cracks with those.

When to Visit in 2021?

Above all things, deciding when to visit Disney World is the most important decision you have to make when planning your trip.

Factors such as crowds, price, weather, and special events should all be taken into consideration when choosing your dates. Unfortunately for some, it’s not always up to us to decide. If you have children in school, you might be forced to only choose dates during the holidays or summer break, and those can be the worst times to visit.

Let’s look at some of the factors, meanwhile, our post on The Best Times to Visit Disney World goes into more depth.

When to visit Disney World

Crowds

The crowds are probably our most important factor in deciding when to go to Disney World. Trust us, there is nothing worst than going to Disney World when the parks are their busiest.

Crowds at Disney World tend to follow the school calendar, which means holidays and the Summer are when they are at peak levels. If you can avoid going during those times you will be better off, but sometimes this is not possible, especially if you have to take your kids out of school.

Read our 2021 Disney World Crowd Calendar post to see which months are the busiest and least busy.

Weather

Whether in Orlando, Florida can be brutal for a good part of the year with scorching temperatures and unbearable humidity. Even though it’s known for sunshine, Disney World also gets tons of rain during some months.

The best weather for the parks tends to be from November to March when the climate is mild and there are few rainy days. You also need to know when there are Hurricanes at Walt Disney World and how to avoid them.

What is the Cheapest Time to Go to Disney World?

Going to Disney World is expensive, so planning a vacation for cheap can be a huge help to many guests. So what is the cheapest time to go?

Disney World offers the best rates and the biggest discounts during the off-season when kids are at school. Prices are the highest during the summer and during holidays. Things like ticket prices, airfare, and hotel rooms are all more expensive during those times.

If saving money is important to you, try booking your trip in January, February or September.

Read our post on the cheapest times to go to Disney World for more info and tips for guests on a budget.

Special Events

Disney World Special Events

Disney can throw quite the party, and many people come to Disney World specifically for the yearly special events put on. Depending on your needs, you might want to come during one of the events or avoid them altogether.

Here are some of the biggest special events to make note of in 2021:

Park Pass Reservations

Right now in 2021 you can’t get into the Disney theme parks without a Park Pass Reservation, and since capacity at the parks is currently limited, they aren’t always available for the dates you want.

Make sure there are open dates for the parks you want before booking your trip, then once you buy your tickets, make your park pass reservations so you are sure to get in. We explain it all in our post on how to make Disney Park Pass reservations.

New Attractions

If you love attractions, then you might want to plan your trip around some of the new rides that are opening up. This is especially true if you’ve been to Disney World many times before and want to hold out until something else is new.

Here are the biggest new attractions coming in 2021:

Those are just a taste of what’s coming next. Read our guide on New Rides Coming to Disney World which will help you decide when to plan your trip.

Disney World coming attractions

What Month is the Best to Go to Disney World?

In general, we find that January and September are the best months to visit Disney World.

In 2021 that changes a little bit. We still think the first few months are a great time to visit, but September won’t be nearly as advantageous as it should be more crowded with people coming for the 50th Anniversary.

For a variety of reasons, we feel that November and December will be the best months at Disney World in 2021. Read our post on Disney World – Month by Month Rankings for a comparison of each one.

Wait Until 2022?

If you don’t feel absolutely comfortable about visiting Disney World in 2021, we don’t blame you. There are so many uncertainties right now and we can’t be 100% sure what the experience will be like by the end of the year. You might be better off waiting until 2022.

Our article on “Should you visit Disney World in 2021 or 2022?” can helps make the case for each year and includes the positives and negatives for both.

Changes During Phased Reopening

Guests visiting Walt Disney World in 2021 must comply with the various new safety measures in place. This includes face masks, temperature screening, physical distancing, increased cleaning and sanitization, and other safety measures. (More on these below.)

in front of Cinderella Castle Magic Kingdom with masks

Safety Guidelines

Some of the new safety guidelines at Disney World include:

  • Requiring Face Masks
  • Guest Temperature Screening
  • Increased Sanitization
  • Cast Member Safety Training
  • Safety Signs
  • Additional Hand-washing & Hand Sanitizer Stations 
  • Distancing Ground Markers in Queues
  • Limiting Attraction Availability and Capacity
  • Limiting Entertainment Options
  • Plastic Dividers at Checkout
  • Touchless Transactions at checkout

Many people want to know “Is Disney World Still Safe?” After many visits to the parks during this time, we feel that it is, but each family will have to decide based on their own needs and concerns.

To help, you should read up on how the experience is different in our post on New Disney World Changes & Guidelines.

Limited Park Capacity

During the phased reopening Disney is limiting capacity at the theme parks and not letting in the usual number of guests. That’s the main reason for the new Park Pass Reservation System, so Disney can control how many people are in each park every day.

It’s likely capacity will continue to increase in 2021, but just how close we get to normal levels is anyone’s guess.

Limited Experiences & Closures

Some of the normal experiences guests are used to at Disney World are not running right now. Since a Disney World vacation is not cheap, this can be a huge factor in deciding whether it’s worth the cost at this time.

Some of the things missing are:

  • Fireworks
  • Most Stage Shows
  • Character Meets
  • Limited Restaurants
  • Fewer Park Hours

On top of that, things like the Disney Dining Plan, FastPass+, Extra Magic Hours, After Hours Events, Dessert Parties, & Free Dining all might come back in 2021.

ABC Commissary cash registers

Important Disney World Vocab

FastPass+, PhotoPass, ADRs, MDE, EMH…anyone else confused yet?? In fact, before you start planning your Disney vacation, there are some basic vocabulary you need to learn.

Below we’ve listed the most Disney important terms you will see while planning your trip:

My Disney Experience

Everything starts with My Disney Experience when planning a Disney World vacation. Also known as MDE, this is Disney World’s app that handles dining reservations, FastPass+, mobile ordering, park maps, resort stay information, itineraries, PhotosPass pictures, and much, much more.

My Disney Experience is accessible through the website or the mobile app on your phone. Get familiar with it, because it’s a necessary tool to use before and during your vacation.

FastPass+

FastPass+ is Disney’s service that allows guests to reserve access to the most popular theme park attractions, essentially skipping the lines. FastPass+ is included free with all guest theme park admissions.

Guests receive 3 FastPass+ selections daily which can be used to reserve most attractions in the parks. Once the 3 Fastpass+ selections have been redeemed that day, additional selections can be made.

Walt Disney World Resort hotel guests have advanced access to FastPass+ and can make reservations up to 60 days in advance from the check-in date at their hotel for the entire length of stay. (FastPass+ is currently suspended)

Disney World FastPass+ line

Extra Magic Hours

Extra Magic Hours (EMH) allow Disney World Resort hotel guests to have access to the theme parks before or after the general public. This is one of the biggest benefits of staying at a Disney World Resort hotel with guests experiencing fewer crowds in the parks.

EMH run on a rotating schedule with a different park increasing the park hours every day. Parks either open 1 hour earlier in the morning than usual or stay open 2 hours later in the evening.

So far in 2021 Extra Magic Hours are not running, however, Disney has come up with the Early Theme Park Entry service which works in a similar way but only in the mornings.

MagicBands

MagicBands are an all-in-one mobile connectivity device disguised as colorful bracelets. These devices connect with My Disney Experience and can be used by guests to buy food or merchandise, to unlock hotel room doors, to redeem FastPass+ selections at rides, and used as theme park tickets.

Starting in 2021, MagicBands are no longer free to guests but can be purchased for a small fee online or in the parks. Read more about the future of MagicBands and replacement technology Disney is working on.

Park Hopping

Park hopping is Disney’s system for allowing guests to visit multiple theme parks in the same day. It is an add-on feature to your Disney World theme park admission and is an extra cost. Whether or not it’s worth it to you depends on if you prefer hopping around to multiple parks per day or do one park per day more thoroughly.

Park Hopping is back in 2021 after being unavailable for most of last year. Read our post on Disney World Park Hopping in 2021 to see what changes there are to the system now.

ADRs

ADRs is an abbreviation for Advanced Dining Reservations and it is how you reserve a table at Disney World restaurants. Dining reservations are a MUST to get into the more popular restaurants, especially for character meals, theme park restaurants and the more elegant dining experiences.

If you are staying at one of the Disney World Resort hotels, ADRs can be made 180 days in advance of your check-in date (60 days in 2021), and reservations can be made for up to 10 days past the check-in date. If you are staying off-site, you are at a disadvantage because you can only make reservations 180 days in advance of the dining date.

Read our Disney World Dining Reservations Guide for more details and tips on getting into the restaurants you want.

EPCOT Le Cellier dining room

PhotoPass & Memory Maker

PhotoPass is Disney’s photography service offered at the Walt Disney World Resort. Professional photographers (and machines) are stationed throughout the parks and are available to take pictures of you and your family as a memory to take back home with you.

These photographers are set up in the most scenic areas, with many of Disney World’s famous icons in the pictures with you like Cinderella Castle, Spaceship Earth, etc. These photos are connected to your My Disney Experience account and can be downloaded or printed at a later time.

Many of the photographs include MagicShots, which are photos with a little bit of extra Disney magic in them, often including the characters and funny poses. On-ride photos are also available on many of the attractions and also can be downloaded.

In order to get these photos, you will need to purchase the MemoryMaker package for your trip. It is an additional cost of $199 + tax (or $169 + tax if you purchase it at least 3 days in advance), but gives you unlimited photo opportunities for your whole travel party during your vacation.

Disney photographers will also take photos of you and your family with your own phones if you ask, so don’t be afraid. This service is free of charge.

Where to Stay?  

Where to stay Disney Vacation Planning Guide

The next step in booking your Walt Disney World vacation is figuring out where you want to stay.

Some of the factors to consider when deciding where to stay are:

  • Staying On-Site or Off-Site
  • Budget
  • Accommodation Type
  • Location and Convenience
  • Hotel Amenities
  • Airport Transportation
  • Extra Perks

Some of these will be important to you while others not so much. Base your decision on the accommodations that check off the most boxes for you and your family.

The first step in this process is deciding if you want to stay at a Disney World Resort hotel (on-site) or outside of the resort property (off-site). If you want to know which hotels are open in 2021, read our Disney World Resort Reopening guide.

Disney World Resort Hotels

Staying On-Site Benefits

  • Location Resorts are located near the Disney theme parks which means less travel time each day. You can also go back to your hotel for a nap in the afternoon before heading out once again later.
  • Park Pass Reservations – More reservations are allocated for Disney Resort guests and are still available closer to the arrival date.
  • FastPass+ – Staying at a WDW resort hotel means you can make your FastPass+ reservations 60 days before your trip, a whole 30 days before guests staying off-site. *(not available during the reopening phase)
  • Extra Magic Hours – You will have extra time in the parks when the general public is gone. *(not available during the reopening phase)
  • Transportation – Disney includes free transportation to and from the theme parks, Disney Springs, and other hotels. Free airport shuttle service is also provided with Disney’s Magical Express. *(ending in 2022)
  • Theming Most Disney World hotels have unique theming that you and your kids will love.
  • The Disney Bubble – There is something magical about stepping into Walt Disney World at the beginning of your vacation and then not stepping out until the end. You feel tucked away inside this magical world that you never want to leave.
Disney's Wilderness Lodge Planning Guide

Staying Off-Site

Benefits of Staying Off-Site:

  • Lower Cost – This is the biggest benefit, one that could make a huge difference in your decision. Compared to each other, non-Disney hotels cost significantly less than Disney hotels of the same hotel class (value vs. value, deluxe vs. deluxe). You could save between 30-50% on hotel costs by staying off-site.
  • Transportation, FastPass+, Extra Magic Hours – Some of the off-site hotels have these extras so check before booking if important to you.
  • Better if Visiting Other Orlando Destinations – If going to Orlando, Sea World or other destinations, a more central location outside Disney World is nice.
  • More Luxurious – Some of the hotels available in the Orlando area like the Four Seasons Orlando or Ritz-Carlton Orlando, are true luxury hotels, and offer more amenities than the Disney World Resorts.

On-Site vs Off-Site

If you are looking for the easiest, most convenient choice and money is not your number one deciding factor, we recommend staying at a Disney World Resort hotel. The only real negative is the cost, and most of the time the benefits outweigh that, but it will depend on your priorities and budget.

We recommend exploring both options and weighing the cost vs value for you and your family. If you are only going for 4-5 days though, we think staying at a Disney hotel is the smart play since time is of the essence. If you have a longer stay (7 days or more), you might find more value in staying off-site.

Disney Hotel Types

Disney World Boardwalk at sunset

There are 4 tiers of Walt Disney World Resort hotels and they are organized by cost:

  • Value Resorts
  • Moderate Resorts
  • Deluxe Resorts
  • Deluxe Villas

Value resorts are the cheapest of the hotel types and can be booked anywhere from $100-$200 per night depending on the season. They have the fewest amenities, the smallest rooms, the cheapest theming, the worst dining options, and the transportation is the slowest.

Moderate resorts are a step up from value, but not nearly as nice as the Deluxe resorts. The rooms are bigger than value rooms, and the dining is much better at most of them. Prices range from $170-$300.

Deluxe resorts are our favorite hotels in Disney World, and for good reason. Most of the rooms are large and can fit more than 4 people. The best dining locations are located here with some world-class restaurants. The pools are the best and the locations and transportation options can’t be beat such as the monorail, Disney Skyliner and most within walking distance of the parks.

Of course, expect to pay for this upgrade and prices can vary between $300-$700 depending on where and when you stay.

Deluxe Villas are Disney Vacation Club properties located at the Deluxe Resorts. Some guests own time share points they can spend at these resorts, while other rent points from members. This is the cheapest way to stay at one of the deluxe resorts without breaking the bank and a strategy we highly recommend.

Vacation Packages 

Disney World Vacation Packages are your hotel room + theme park tickets in the same bundle. These can be a mixed bag. Sometimes they can be a great value and offer deep discounts on room rates or even include discounts on food like the Disney Free Dining package included.

Most of the time we find you can save more money by getting a hotel room-only discount and buying tickets separately. You should do your due diligence and compare prices between the two options. Disney World Vacation Packages can be booked on www.DisneyWorld.com

Again, we highly recommend you using an Authorized Disney Vacation Planner as they will always be able to find the deepest discounts for you and save the most money.

Disney Resort Hotel Planning Guide

Air BnB

Instead of staying at a hotel, if you are really trying to save money on your trip, then consider staying at an Airbnb near Disney World. If you aren’t familiar with how it works, Airbnb is a service that rents out peoples’ residences to travelers like a hotel room.

Airbnbs in Orlando include vacation homes, apartments, and condos. Besides the lower cost, guests have more privacy and space in a private residence than at a hotel. There is also usually a full kitchen so you can prepare your meals and save even more money.

The biggest downside is the distance and not being able to use Disney transportation. You will either have to rent a car or use a ride-sharing service like Uber to get around, and that can be inconvenient. If you already will be using a car, then consider this a great alternative.

Tickets

Park tickets can be the most expensive part of a trip to Walt Disney World, even more than dining and your hotel. That’s why it’s important to do your research beforehand and know how to save money when buying them.

You also need to decide exactly how many days you want to spend in the parks so you don’t end up paying for more days than necessary.

Disney Vacation Planning Guide Tickets

Where to Buy

Options for buying Disney World Tickets include:

  • Directly from Disney
  • Authorized Ticket Reseller
  • Travel Agent

Getting your tickets from Disney on the official Disney World website is your first option. It’s almost always more expensive, however, and it pays to look elsewhere.

To save money on your park tickets, we recommend using one of the authorized resellers online such as Undercover Tourist or Get Away Today. They are legit resellers so you don’t have to worry about being ripped off like other places online.

Depending on what type of ticket you are buying, these options can save you as much as $50-$70 per ticket! That’s a huge savings, especially if you have a big family. Once you buy your Disney World park tickets, they can be linked to your My Disney Experience with a code.

Ticket Types

There are three types of Disney World theme park tickets: Standard tickets, Park Hopper tickets, or Annual Passes. Both standard and park hopper tickets can be purchased as single-day tickets or multi-day.

Standard Tickets – This is the cheapest ticket type. They allow you admission to one theme park per day for the amount of days you purchased. You can visit the same park multiple days if you choose.

Park Hopper Tickets – This option allows you to visit multiple parks per day for the entire amount of days you purchased. Technically you can visit all 4 parks in one day if you like. There is a Water Park version too. They are more expensive but allow for greater flexibility.

Annual Passes – There are multiple versions with different restrictions but the higher-end options give you unlimited access to the parks letting you visit whenever you want. If you live close to WDW or are planning on visiting multiple times in a one-year period, an annual pass could be a good investment.

Cost

Planning a trip to Disney

Disney World park tickets are priced on a date and length-based system. That means the prices will fluctuate greatly depending on when you go.

For example, In 2021, a 1-Day standard park ticket starts at $109 per day and goes all the way up to $159 per day. That’s a huge difference and a lot of savings by going in the off-season.

Another important factor is that tickets cost less per day the more days you have on your ticket. In fact, Disney’s motto is: “the longer you play, the less you pay per day.” Once you get higher than a 3-day ticket, the price per day drops dramatically.

When to Buy

There are multiple reasons to buy your Disney World park tickets as soon as possible. One reason is you can’t make Park pass reservations without them. That is important because the longer you wait the less likely you will get into the park of your choice when you want.

Another reason to buy early is to make FastPass+ reservations. Disney World Resort hotel guests can start making them 60 days before the start of their stay, but if you can’t if you don’t have a ticket already, and that means missing out on the best rides like Flight of Passage.

Disney tickets never become less expensive, so buying early also locks in your price before the next price increase comes.

Buy your tickets whenever your budget allows, just never wait until you get to the gate.

How to Travel to Walt Disney World

Now that you have your hotel and tickets all set, you need to decide how to get to Walt Disney World. This will depend on how far away you live and what your plans are when you get to Orlando.

Walt Disney World entrance road sign makeover

Drive or Fly?

These are the two most popular options for getting to Disney World and depend mostly on where you live.

Drive – If you within a few hours of Walt Disney World, your best option might be to drive. You also might decide to drive if you are staying off-site and will be visiting other destinations outside of Disney World.

One thing to keep in mind is that Disney hotels (and other Orlando hotels) charge parking fees for each night of your stay, and that will cost you an extra $20-$25 per day.

Fly – For most guests, an airplane is the most convenient way to get to Disney World. The Orlando International Airport is the best choice and located only 30 minutes from WDW. There are multiple flights per day arriving from most cities in the United States and Internationally.

Airfare is also not expensive and good discount flights can be found online with many between $100-$200.

Booking Airfare

We recommend to set your dates and start looking for airfare 1 year before your vacation. That will give you the best chance to score a deal.

If you are booking airfare yourself, we usually find the best prices on ITA Software by Google, AirfareWatchdog, or Skyscanner. You can set up price alerts and they give a flexible dates option to find the best price.

Transportation to and from Airport

Inside Disney's Magical Express

The Orlando International Airport is located approximately 20 miles from Walt Disney World, which means you will need transportation to get to your hotel.

If you are staying at a Walt Disney World Resort hotel, Disney’s Magical Express takes you to your hotel FREE of charge. Unfortunately, this service is ending in 2022.

Other options no matter where you are staying include taxi service or ride-sharing such as Uber or Lyft.

  • Taxis are by far the more expensive choice and will cost around $50-$60 each way plus tip depending on where you are going.
  • Uber is a much cheaper option and will cost between $25-$30 each way.

Allow sufficient time to get to your hotel from the airport. If you have a 10:00 am arrival you can expect to get to your hotel by around 11:30 am if taking a cab or Uber. It will be longer on the Magical Express and you will arrive between 12:00 pm – 12:30 pm.

Attractions and Rides

Rise of the Resistance ride vehicles in motion

Most people come to Walt Disney World for the attractions, and you want to plan them out as best as possible in order to do all the ones most important to you.

Pay special attention to this section if this is your first time or you haven’t been to Disney World in a few years as there are many new attractions to experience. Make sure to check the Disney World Ride Closures List to see which rides will be open during your trip.

If you are going to Hollywood Studios, make sure to read our post on How to Get a Boarding Group for Rise of the Resistance as it is the hardest attraction to ride in Disney World.

For a detailed look at all of the attractions, be sure to check out our other Disney World Ride Guides:

Pick Your Park Days

First, you need to pick how many days you need for each park and how many park days total. Depending on your interests, some parks you can get done in half a day, and some will take you multiple days.

If it’s your first time we recommend 1 full day for each park, and an extra half-day or more for the Magic Kingdom since it has the most attractions.

  • Magic KingdomThe best park for small kids and has the most rides.
  • EPCOT Best park for foodies, festivals, and culture.
  • Hollywood Studios Best park for teens and thrill-seekers.
  • Animal KingdomBest park for animal and nature-lovers and a good selection of rides and food.

The highlights of EPCOT, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom can all be done in 3 half-days, but we recommend spending at least a day in each to soak up the atmosphere and not feel rushed.

Must-Do Rides

There are some truly special ride-experiences at Disney World and each park has a number of Must-Do attractions you won’t want to miss. Here are some of the best ones:

Magic Kingdom – Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain, Peter Pan’s Flight, The Haunted Mansion, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover, Jungle Cruise

EPCOT – Soarin’ Around the World, Test Track, Frozen Ever After, Spaceship Earth

Hollywood Studios – Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, Tower of Terror, Slinky Dog Dash, Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, Toy Story Mania!, Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, Star Tours: The Adventures Continue

Animal Kingdom – Avatar: Flight of Passage, Kilimanjaro Safaris, Expedition Everest, Dinosaur, Na’vi River Journey

Must-Do rides Disney Vacation Planning Guide

Those are by far the most popular attractions in each park and the ones that should be at the top of your list. That is a great starting point for any park itinerary.

Make sure to leave enough time to fully explore all the details in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Pandora: The World of Avatar, two of the most immersive lands we’ve ever seen!

Characters

Characters are a huge draw for guests when visiting the parks, especially kids. Character meets can be found in all 4 theme parks and include favorites such as Mickey Mouse, Minnie, Goofy, Pluto, Princesses and characters from the Pixar films.

(Character meets are suspended in 2021 at this time but you can see them in the new Character Cavalcades)

Entertainment

Besides rides, Disney World also offers first-class entertainment with amazing stage shows and nighttime spectaculars. Here is a list of the ones you shouldn’t miss and where to find them:

Fireworks/Nighttime Spectaculars – Happily Ever After (MK), Disney Harmonious (EPCOT Opening in 2021), Fantasmic! (HS), Tree of Life Awakenings (AK).

Stage Shows/Street Shows – Mickey’s Royal Friendship Faire (MK), Dapper Dans (MK), Jeweled Dragon Acrobats (EPCOT), Voices of Liberty (EPCOT), Serveur Amusant (EPCOT), A Frozen Sing-Along (HS), Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage (HS), Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular (HS), Festival of the Lion King (AK), Finding Nemo – The Musical (AK)

Parades – Character Cavalcades (All Parks), Festival of Fantasy Parade (MK)

Many of these entertainment options are currently suspended in 2021, but we are hopeful some will come back later this year.

High Priority FastPass+

Not all FastPass+ reservations are equal, and there are some attractions where it’s much more advantageous to use them. After all, you only have 3 FastPasses per day, so use them wisely.

Disney Vacation Planning Guide high priority FastPass+

You should use FastPass+ selections on higher-profile attractions that always draw long wait times like Seven Dwarfs Mine Train or Flight of Passage. Using a FastPass+ on Alien Swirling Saucers at Hollywood Studios for example would be a waste.

Here is our list of High-Priority FastPass+ attractions:

  • Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (Magic Kingdom)
  • Peter Pan’s Flight (Magic Kingdom)
  • Space Mountain (Magic Kingdom)
  • Test Track (EPCOT)
  • Frozen Ever After (EPCOT)
  • Soarin’ Around the World (EPCOT)
  • Avatar: Flight of Passage (Animal Kingdom)
  • Na’vi River Journey (Animal Kingdom)
  • Slinky Dog Dash (Hollywood Studios)
  • Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway (Hollywood Studios)
  • Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster (Hollywood Studios)

FastPass+ is currently suspended in 2021, but this is a good list when it comes back in 2021 or 2022.

Dining

For some, dining is their favorite experience when visiting Walt Disney World, and there is an unlimited number of choices available for every palate. In fact, there are over 400 restaurants at Walt Disney World, with varying menus and themes to choose from.

Disney Vacation Planning Tips

Some restaurants are table service where you sit down and a waiter serves you and some are quick service/counter service which is more like fast food.

Among the decisions you have to make are where to eat, when to book reservations, and whether or not to use the Dining Plan or not. It’s also important to know which Disney World restaurants are open in 2021 and the safety changes.

Read our post on Disney World Dining During the Phased Reopening for more info.

Choosing Restaurants

The first decision to make about dining in Disney World is which restaurants you want to go to.

It can be hard to make a decision, especially if you haven’t been to any of them before. We suggest reading through the menus on the Disney World website to see what stands out to you and reading some of our Disney Restaurant Reviews for more info.

Character dining and buffets are options to consider, and some restaurants are more kid-friendly than others.

Here are some of our rankings of the top places to eat at Walt Disney World:

Making Reservations

Once you’ve picked out your restaurants, it’s time to make reservations. They can be made using the My Disney Experience app on your mobile device or on your computer on the Disney World website.

Advanced Dining Reservations can be made 180 days before your check-in date for the length of your vacation (60 days at this time). We highly recommend making them as soon as possible as the most popular restaurants fill up 6 months ahead of time.

Read our Disney Advanced Dining Reservations guide for more tips on how to book the restaurants you want and the highest priority restaurants.

High Priority Restaurants

Storybook Dining at Artist Point with Snow White

Here is a list of the hardest-to-book restaurants in Disney World and ones that should be booked right at the 180-day deadline:

  • Be Our Guest (Magic Kingdom)
  • Chef Mickey’s (Disney’s Contemporary Resort)
  • Cinderella’s Royal Table (Magic Kingdom)
  • Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue (Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort)
  • Le Cellier (EPCOT)
  • Oga’s Cantina (Hollywood Studios)
  • ‘Ohana (Disney’s Polynesian Resort)
  • Storybook Dining at Artist Point with Snow White (Disney’s Wilderness Lodge)
  • Victoria & Albert’s (Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort)

There are other hard-to-get ones like Via Napoli and California Grill, but the above ones are by far the hardest.

Our Favorite WDW Restaurants

Our favorite WDW Restaurants for First-Timers are:

  • 50’s Prime Time Cafe (Hollywood Studios)
  • California Grill (Disney’s Contemporary Resort)
  • Cinderella’s Royal Table (Magic Kingdom)
  • Hollywood Brown Derby (Hollywood Studios)
  • Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue (Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort)
  • Le Cellier (EPCOT)
  • Liberty Tree Tavern (Magic Kingdom)
  • Morimoto Asia (Disney Springs)
  • ‘Ohana (Disney’s Polynesian Resort)
  • Oga’s Cantina (Hollywood Studios)
  • Pecos Bill Tall Tale Cafe and Inn (Magic Kingdom)
  • Satu’li Canteen (Animal Kingdom)
  • The Boathouse (Disney Springs)
  • Tusker House (Animal Kingdom)
  • Victoria & Albert’s (Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort)

That list has something for everyone no matter your budget or tastes.

Disney Dining Plan

Even though we aren’t fans of the Disney Dining Plan, many guests love to use it and it’s something you need to understand to make an educated decision on how you want to pay for your meals.

Three Dole Whips at Magic Kingdom

The Dining Plan lets guests pay for their meals before their vacation starts giving each person in the group a number of credits they can spend on meals each day. This makes it very convenient since you don’t have to pay for food “out-of-pocket” during your trip, and your budget is already set.

There are 4 levels of the Disney Dining Plan, (Quick Service, Standard, Plus, and Deluxe) each with different prices and tailored to how much you plan on eating during your trip.

In general, we don’t recommend the Disney Dining Plan because it is a bit too expensive. In order to make it worth it, you need to do a lot of research ahead of time, pick the “right” restaurants and the most expensive items on the menu. Most people don’t end up using all their credits, essentially paying for food they never eat.

The Disney Dining Plan is not currently running at this time and we don’t know if it will be back in 2021.

Disney World Transportation

Disney Vacation Planning Guide Transportation

Next, it’s important to know how to get around Walt Disney World once you arrive. With almost 500 buses, dozens of watercraft, a monorail, and a gondola system, Disney World has a larger public transportation system than many American cities.

It’s important then to know all your options and which ones you need to use on your vacation. Our post on Disney World Transportation During Reopening Phase is a good resource on this.

Should You Rent a Car?

Renting a car at Disney World has it’s positives and negatives and is a big decision you need to make. It comes down to if you are going to visit other places outside of Walt Disney World or staying on-property the entire stay.

If you are going to spend the entire vacation at Walt Disney World, there is absolutely no need to rent a car. Disney’s public transportation is more than sufficient for your needs.

If you are just going to spend one day in another Orlando destination like Universal Studios, you don’t need a car and you will save money by catching an Uber or a taxi to your destination.

The only reason you need to rent a car is if you plan on spending multiple days outside Disney World. Just know that hotel parking fees can add up so expect to spend an additional $20-$25 per night on top of rental car fees.

Buses

Disney Vacation Planning Guide buses

The most common form of transportation at Walt Disney World, and also the worst. No matter where you are staying, you will eventually have to use a Disney bus at some point in your trip to get to at least one of the theme parks.

They can each hold 100+ guests so they can get very packed and uncomfortable. Buses also tend to be the slowest way of getting around at Disney World, so if there is an alternative to where you are going, take it.

If you do end up taking the bus, make sure to show up 20-30 minutes before the time you want to leave as they are notoriously late.

Monorail

When Disney World’s monorail system debuted back in 1971 it was an instant hit with guests and become the most popular mode of transportation.

The monorail has 3 lines loops, 2 (Resort and Express) and that go around the Seven Seas Lagoon and connect the Magic Kingdom with the nearby hotels at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Disney’s Polynesian Resort and the Ticket and Transportation Center.

The third line connects EPCOT to Magic Kingdom lines allowing access to the surrounding resorts.

We love the Monorail and it’s still a great time riding from resort to resort, but they are outdated and in great need of a refurbishment. The trains haven’t been replaced since 1989 so it’s beyond time for a new system.

Skyliner

This is the newest transportation mode at Disney World, and our current favorite. Reminiscent of the old Skyway buckets from the Magic Kingdom, this gondola system brings guests between Disney parks and resorts with a wonderful bird’s-eye view.

Disney Skyliner Stops – EPCOT, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Disney’s Riviera Resort, Disney’s Pop Century Resort, Disney’s Art of Animation Resort and Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort.

Disney Skyliner at sunset

Read our Full Guide to the Disney Skyliner for more tips, maps, and everything else you need to know.

Boats

Disney World has a fleet of watercraft that 3 of the theme parks with various surrounding resort hotels. It’s a fantastic way to get to the parks, relaxing and with great views.

  • Parks with Watercraft Service – Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, and Hollywood Studios.
  • Resorts with Watercraft Service – Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort, Disney’s Polynesian Resort, Disney’s Contemporary Resort (and Bay Lake), Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, Disney’s Yacht and Beach Club Resorts, Disney’s Boardwalk Inn Resort, Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Resorts, Disney’s Port Orleans – French Quarter, Disney’s Port Orleans Riverside, Disney’s Old Key West Resort and Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort (Treehouse Villas).

Expect to wait 20-30 between boat arrivals.

Ride Sharing (Uber/Lyft)

Sometimes you just don’t have time to wait for Disney transportation and you need to get to your destination fast. A ride-sharing service like Uber or Lyft is perfect at Disney World in that situation.

Ride-sharing such as Uber will bring you anywhere you want in Walt Disney World. The only place they can’t go is to the front entrance at the Magic Kingdom. Instead they drop guests off at the Ticket and Transportation Center.

Disney doesn’t offer hotel to hotel bus service, so we often use Uber to get from our hotel to another one where we have a dinner reservation. This is a big-time saver instead of taking a bus to Disney Springs or a Park and then over to the second hotel.

Minnie Vans

Minnie Vans are Disney’s attempt to counter the popularity of ride-sharing services over the last few years. They are not currently running and have reportedly been discontinued at Disney World.

They were run through the Lyft app and would bring you anywhere on property for a fee. Cars were painted red and black with white polka dots to resemble Minnie Mouse’s patented dress. They were much faster than Disney buses, but in the end, 2-3x more expensive than an Uber and not worth the high cost.

Getting from Park to Park

If you are park hopping you will want to go from one park to the other in the same day. Thankfully, Disney offers park-to-park transportation for resort hotel guests.

Traveling between Disney World parks

You can take the monorail between the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT. If you want to go between the Magic Kingdom and any other park, you will need to take the bus. Right now they run from 2:00 pm daily between parks.

Hollywood Studios and EPCOT have multiple transportation methods between them with boats, walking, and the Disney Skyliner all options.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom is the most difficult park to get to from another park and can only be reached by bus.

Other Stuff to Do

Most guests only come to Walt Disney World in mind, not realizing there is a whole world of other activities and entertainment to enjoy. There are water parks, boating, fishing golf, spa treatments, shopping to enjoy. You can even take a private tour or get a ticket to a special event.

Disney Vacation Planning Guide other things to do

You can celebrate a special moment in your life like an engagement or anniversary. Believe it or not, there are even a bunch of free things to do on your trip! There is something for the whole family.

Let’s take a look at some of the other things to do at Disney World.

Water Parks

Disney World has 2 water parks: Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach. To go, you need to purchase the water parks add-on to your regular theme park admission or buy a single-day ticket.

  • Typhoon Lagoon has 7 water slide rides, one kiddie slide, one kiddie play area, one lazy river, one wave pool, and one small exploration trail. More family-friendly.
  • Blizzard Beach has seven water slide rides, one kiddie play area, one lazy river, one wave pool, and a chairlift. More thrilling water slides.

Both water parks are fun, but if we are going to spend one day at a water park, we choose Typhoon Lagoon every time. The overall theming of the park is amazing, and the lazy river and wave pool are much better than at Blizzard Beach.

Disney Springs

This is Disney World’s main shopping and dining district and where you go if you are looking for nightlife at Disney World. Disney Springs underwent a major refurbishment and expansion a few years ago and now has countless must-try dining options as well as a Cirque du Soleil show, a movie theater, the NBA Experience, and more.

Most of the restaurants at Disney Springs are much easier to get a reservation for than the restaurants at the parks and resort hotels, so keep that in mind if you have difficulty.

Read our rankings of the best Disney Springs restaurants for suggestions of where and what to eat.

Resort Days

Planning a Day at a Disney World Resort

Disney World can be exhausting running from one park to the next. We recommend spending at least one day doing absolutely nothing at your resort hotel. When I say nothing I mean lounging by the pool with a drink.

A good strategy is to have one resort day in the middle of your trip so you can recharge your batteries before doing the rest of the parks.

Recreation

What is there to do at the resort hotels you ask? Tons! Here are some of our favorite recreation activities at Disney World:

  • Swimming
  • Fishing
  • Boating/Jet Skis
  • Horseback Riding
  • Organized Resort Activities & Games
  • Painting, Pottery & Crafts
  • Sports – Tennis, Basketball, Golf, Archery
  • Jogging/Trails
  • Movies Under the Stars

Those should keep you busy for a while!

Visiting Other Resorts

Another option is to visit other Walt Disney World Resort hotels during your stay. The theming on some of them is really incredible (Wilderness Lodge, Polynesian, Animal Kingdom Lodge), it’s free to do, and it’s fun to just walk around and check out the grounds.

Visiting other resorts on a Disney Vacation

No, you can’t swim in the pools at resort you aren’t staying at, but you can scout out the hotels to find the resort you will stay at on your next trip to Disney World. Many enjoy doing this during the holidays to see the various decorations at each resort.

If you don’t want to take a whole day visiting other resorts, we suggest booking a lunch or dinner reservation at one of the restaurants in the resorts and then going early to check things out.

Tours

Sure you can go to the parks and ride the attractions, but did you know there are dozens of tours (paid and free) that you and your family can take? Planning a tour can be a great addition to your vacation and there is one for the whole family.

Best Tours at Disney World

  • Keys to the Kingdom (Magic Kingdom)
  • Walt Disney: Marceline to Magic Kingdom Tour (Magic Kingdom)
  • Behind the Seeds (EPCOT)
  • English Tea Garden Tour (EPCOT)
  • Star Wars Guided Tour (Hollywood Studios)
  • Savor the Savanna: Evening Safari Experience (Animal Kingdom)
  • Wild Africa Trek (Animal Kingdom)
  • Ultimate Day of Thrills VIP Tour (All Parks)

(Tours are suspended right now at Disney World.)

Extra Magic

There are also other special experiences at Disney World we like to call “Extra Magic” as they add just that extra touch you or your family member is looking for on your vacation. Be sure to look into these, especially for a special occasion.

  • Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique – This is a special salon that transforms your little princess or prince with a complete makeover. There are multiple packages that include costumes, make-up, manicures, and hair-styling. Packages range from $75-$450.
  • Dessert/Fireworks Parties – Each of the theme parks holds Dessert Parties on almost a nightly basis. These parties include all-you-can-eat desserts and a reserved view of the fireworks shows. Prices range from $40-$70 per person.
  • Hard-ticketed Parties – Periodically there are events at the parks that require an extra ticket to and private from the general public and are some of the most popular events in Disney World each year. These include Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, and various After Hours events. Expect to pay between $100-$170 for these events.

Have a Daily Itinerary

No one likes being tied to a schedule on vacation, unfortunately at Walt Disney World that is not an option if you want to have the best experience possible during your visit.

Best Disney Vacation Planning Guide

We’re not saying you have to walk around with a clipboard and spreadsheet, but you need to create a general itinerary for the parks you are going to, which restaurants, etc.

The hard truth is, Disney World is too big and you can’t do it all even if you are there for 2 weeks. That’s why you need to make a plan and prioritize the most important things to you each day.

Schedule

Some of the general questions about your Disney World trip that you need to think about are:

  • How many days are you going to spend in the parks?
  • How long will you go to the parks each day? Full days? Half days? Leave and come back in the evening?
  • What order will you visit the parks in? Do you need to visit some parks more than once?
  • How many sit-down meals per day? Where will you have those meals, at the parks or resort hotels?
  • Which extra experiences are important to me? Special events?

The clearer your answers are to those questions, the easier it’s going to be to plan your days, and ultimately the more fun you will have.

When You’re In the Parks

Assuming you know how many days you want to spend in each park, the next thing you need to do is choose the attractions that are most important to you. Make a list of the ones you absolutely NEED to go on and prioritize those first.

Once you have your list, you can make your FastPass+ reservations. When you have those it will be easier to map out the park and decide what order to do the attractions in.

We recommend looking at the park maps and doing the rides systematically. If you are in Adventureland for Jungle Cruise, then do the other rides on that side of the park while you are there. It will save you valuable time instead of walking back and forth multiple times.

What to Pack & Bring

We are almost there, the only thing left to do is pack your bags. Walt Disney World is a unique place and there are many things you might not think about packing that will be very helpful on your trip. We usually think we packed everything, but inevitably leave something at home, that’s why it’s best to have a list.

Packing bags for Disney Vacation

Here are the most important things to pack:

Luggage/Bags – Make sure your suitcases are in good condition before packing and are big enough to hold all your essential items. Decide how many bags each person is bringing. This will also depend on how many bags your flight permits.

We always pack too much on our trips to Disney World and we find ourselves swimming in bags. If you have a room with a washing machine, take advantage of that and do a load of laundry to save space in your bags.

If you have colorful, character-themed bags, this is the time to use them, your kids will love them. Also make sure to bring a small backpack. We like to carry one during the day so hold our camera, a bottle of water, sunscreen, medicines and other necessities.

Shoes – This might be the MOST important item on the list. If you don’t have comfortable shoes in Disney World, you are going to have a miserable time. On average we walk between 8-10 miles PER DAY on our trips. You may not walk as much as us, but it will be at least 2-3 times more than what you are used to back home.

Here are some other important things you need to bring with you Disney World:

  • Medications
  • Phone Chargers
  • Travel Documents
  • Toiletries
  • Baby Items
  • Swimwear
  • Ponchos
  • Water Bottles
  • Snacks
  • Frogg Toggs Chilly Pads (when it gets too hot)

Disney Vacation Planning Timeline

Now that you understand the basics of planning a Disney World vacation, it’s time to put it all together. When are you supposed to do all these planning tasks?

Sunset over Seven Seas Lagoon Contemporary Resort

Most planning items need to be completed before a certain number of days before your trip. We’ve created a planning timeline for you to make it easier to know when you need to get all these things done by.

One rule you should live by with Disney vacations is “it’s never too early.” Start planning as as soon as possible and things will go much smoother.

499 Days Before Your Trip

You have to be kidding right? I need to start planning my trip 499 days before I go? While it’s not absolutely necessary to start this early, it will give you an advantage.

Start Thinking about Travel Dates – Get at least an idea of the dates you want to go to Disney World. Consult our Best Times to Visit Disney World guide to see which months are the best and worst.

Research/Book Hotel Reservations – Disney makes resort hotel reservations available for booking 499 days in advance. If you know where you want to stay already, you may as well book your hotel now because you’ll have a better chance of getting a room.

This is especially helpful if you plan on going during the holiday season or other very busy times of year.

Download My Disney Experience – Even if you don’t have dates in mind, travelers should download the MDE app and open an account right away to start getting familiar with the layout. It’s also time to go on the Disney World website to start doing research on the hotels and parks.

1 Year Before Your Trip

Decide Travel Dates – By this time you should have picked out when you want to take your vacation. If you need help deciding, it’s wise to look at a Disney World Crowd Calendar to find out when the busiest and least busy times of the year are.

How Many Days at the Parks – You also need to think about how many days you are going to spend in each park and how many days total of your trip. Think about which parks you want to go to and if you want to visit one of the water parks.

Research Attractions – Familiarize yourself with all the top attractions at each park and think about which ones you really want to do.

Price Airfare – It’s never too early to start looking up prices for airfare if you are flying. You should aim to get your tickets no more than 6 months before your trip.

Peter Pan's Flight queue bedroom

9 Months Before You Go

Make Hotel Reservations – By this time you should know when you are going and which hotel to stay at. If you wait any longer you really run the risk of not getting the hotel you want. Lock in your room and then wait and see if a better offer opens up.

Get Everyone on My Disney Experience – You should already have an account, but you also need to make sure your family and all members of your travel party also are signed up. You will need them to be in the system for your dining reservations and FastPass+ reservations down the line, so take care of it early.

Buy Tickets – It’s always good to buys your Disney World park tickets as early as possible. First, the price never goes down and you will not find a lower price than what you see today so lock it in. Secondly, you need to have your tickets before making park reservations which tend to sell out early, especially if going at a busy time.

Make Park Pass Reservations – Once you buy your tickets, you can now make you park pass reservations. Don’t waste time, they sell out quickly.

180+ Days Before You Go

Park Hours – A few days before the 180-day mark arrives, look at the park hours for each day. This will let you plan out your day and will play a park in where you plan your meals and which FastPass+ reservations you book.

Write Itinerary Rough Draft – Start writing out your ideal vacation itinerary day-by-day. Go through which parks you will be at on which days and which restaurants you would like to dine at. You now have a good idea of how your days are going to play out. Do this a few days before the 180-day mark as you need to have all the restaurants decided by then.

Book Your Restaurants – Wake up early and be on your computer by 6:00 am sharp to make dining reservations. This is the most stressful part of planning as it can be hard to get the most difficult restaurants. Write backups for the most popular restaurants in case you can’t book your favorites.

Disney Vacation Planning Timeline

Book Special Events/Experiences – Decide which special experiences you and your family want to do. After hours events like Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party or Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party should be booked once they are available. Experiences like the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique take reservations 180 days before and they sell out quickly.

Decide to Rent a Car or Not – If you are renting a car, start looking a prices and book one when possible.

Disney Dining Plan – Now that you have your restaurants booked you need to decide if the Dining Plan is worth it to you or not. If so, you can add it to your package.

Book Airfare – This is a good time to buy airfare and if you’ve been monitoring it for a few months, you have an idea of what a good deal is.

75 Days Before Your Trip

New Hotel Deals – Throughout the year, Disney introduces new discounts on hotel rooms. Periodically during the planning stage, check if any new deals have come out for your hotel. If a better room opens up at another hotel, so still have time to switch resorts.

Last Call on Tickets – If for some reason you haven’t got your park tickets by now, this is almost the final opportunity with booking FastPass+ attractions coming up at the 60-day mark. Make sure you have your tickets before then.

30-60 Days Before Your Trip

Disney Trip Planning Guide

Book FastPass+ – If you are staying at a Disney World Resort hotel, you can make FastPass+ selections 60 days before your arrival date. This is a MUST. If you are staying off-site, then your FastPass+ window opens at 30 days. Make sure you prioritize these dates.

Write Final Itinerary – Now that you have your parks, dining reservations and FastPass+ locked in, you can write a final copy of your itinerary. You can always make adjustments later but you now know how most of your vacation will go.

45 Days Before Your Trip

Order MagicBands – Even though MagicBands are no longer free to guests, we still recommend ordering them for a small fee. They are $5-$20 per guest depending on what type you order. These must be ordered no more than 11 days before your trip to arrive to your house in time, but we recommend doing it earlier.

10 Days Before Your Trip

Magical Express – You can make a Magical Express reservation up to 24 hours before departure, but there is no reason to wait. Get it done early.

Online Check-In – To skip going to the lobby upon arrival we suggest using Disney’s Online Check-In through My Disney Experience. You can set your credit card for room charges and set a pin for your MagicBand.

3 Days Before Your Trip

Memory Maker – This is the photo package with unlimited photos and downloads during your trip for you and your whole family. This must be ordered 3 days before arrival to get the lower price.

Pack Bags – We sometimes start earlier if we have time, but you should start getting out everything on your packing list and seeing how it fits in your luggage.

Keep Looking for Dining Reservations – If you weren’t able to get any high-priority dining reservations, keep looking periodically from the 180-day point to now. Reservations are more likely to open up the closer you get to your dining date as other guests cancel and change plans. Keep trying up until the morning of the date you are looking for.

Double Check – Run through the list one more time to make sure you have everything covered.

Get Excited – You are going to Disney World, the most magical place on Earth, so get happy!!

Disney Vacation Planning Guide

FAQs

When Should I Start Planning a Disney World Vacation?

Right now. Do it as early as you can and start making plans even up to a year or more before your trip.

How Many Days Should I Go to Disney World?

The average guest vacation to Walt Disney World is 4-7 days. We recommend 5 to 7 days for first-timers depending on your budget.

Can I Go to Disney World Without Planning?

You can, but it is a bad idea. Walt Disney World is one of the most complicated vacations you can take and it needs the proper planning to make the most out of your trip.

Your Thoughts

I want to know what you think about the our Disney Planning Guide…

  • What are your best suggestions when planning a trip to Walt Disney World?
  • What are your biggest questions about planning a Disney vacation?

Let us know in the comments section below!

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