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Disney World Vacation Planning in 5 Steps

Updated on August 18, 2014

How to Plan a Disney World Vacation - 5 Steps for a Great Trip.

Deciding to go to Disney World is easy enough but then you start planning your vacation and it doesn't take long for the conflicting information and number of options available to become overwhelming. We plan Disney vacations for our clients every day and we've figured out how to manage the choices and information in a way that takes the stress out of planning your Disney World vacation. Follow these steps in the order presented and you are going to have a successful and memorable trip to Disney World.

Photo credit: All photos are my own (Stephen Johnson).

Step 1: Decide When You're Going to Go to Disney World.

Don't panic - there is no wrong answer; anytime is a good time for Disney World. There are times that are less crowded or more crowded and going at a busy time does require better planning but, just by reading this article, you've already begun better Disney World vacation planning than 75% of the people who walk through the gates of a Disney theme park.

Less crowded times: Anytime the American kids are in school.

More crowded times: Anytime the American kids are out of school.

Most crowded times: Spring Break, Easter Week, July, Thanksgiving Week, and Christmas Break. Summer Tip: If you have the ability to go in early June or late August, you'll definitely enjoy lower crowd than if you go in the peak of the summer season.

Best Time to Go: You should go at a time that makes the most sense for you based on school, work, financial and family considerations. A good itinerary and touring plans will help you manage crowds - don't let anyone scare you out of your Disney vacation.

Having said that - definitely use our advice on itineraries and touring plans if you are visiting at peak times.

The Benefit of Planning Early: Planning early is definitely to your advantage with Disney World vacations. Because Disney has to staff hotels, restaurants, theme park attractions, and transportation, they offer the best deals to the people who book early because it helps them staff appropriately. The best discounts are almost always offered 3 - 6 months in advance. Because Disney World is such a popular location, planning early also helps you get your first choice in hotel accommodations and restaurant reservations.

Last Minute Disney World Vacations: Sometimes a door opens that lets you take a last-minute trip to Disney World and that is wonderful. We recommend that you use the expert help of a Disney-focused travel agency to help you pull together a great trip in a short time.

Buzz Lighyear / Toy Story Building at Disney's All-Star Movies Resort
Buzz Lighyear / Toy Story Building at Disney's All-Star Movies Resort

Step 2 - Decide Where You're Going to Stay on your Disney Vacation

You have a ton of choices in accommodations for your Disney World vacation:

* An official Disney World Hotel

* A non-Disney hotel

* Rent a vacation home or Condo

* Stay at a Timeshare using your Timeshare weeks or someone else's

* Tent or RV Camp site at Disney's Fort Wilderness Campground

There isn't one "Best Choice".

The official Disney hotels are fun, clean, and convenient but they can sometimes (though not always) cost more than staying at a nearby non-Disney hotel. When looking at the cost, some people forget to consider the value/savings of benefits like free transportation to and from the Orlando International Airport (MCO) and from your resort to the Disney theme parks. Disney offers some more benefits exclusively to the guests at the Disney hotels; things like free parking at the resort and theme parks, special theme park hours (called Extra Magic Hours)that aren't open to the general public or the option of purchasing a Disney Dining Plan. These hotels are popular with people who appreciate the convenience of a streamlined vacation experience that covers transportation, accommodation, and entertainment into one easy package. Women travellers like the safety of staying at the Disney hotels and families with young children appreciate the fact that an on-site hotel makes it easier to take a mid-day break.

The non-Disney hotels may cost less or offer perks like free breakfast. Some of the Disney hotels are limited to 4 people per room so the non-Disney hotels may offer flexibility to larger families. Keep in mind that you will have to pay for parking (about $15 per day) at the theme parks. Some advertise "Free Theme Park Shuttles" and some are very efficient but you really need to call the hotel and see what time the shuttles run. You might find yourself spending a lot on cabs if the shuttle schedules don't get to the parks until later in the morning or leave before the evening fireworks and parades. Be sure to factor in car rental costs, if you won't have your own vehicle. Almost every Orlando vacation accommodation advertises that they're "close to Disney World" but you might want to use something like Google Maps to make sure that the location matches your definition of "close" or "a short drive" to the Disney World theme parks. Keep in mind that SeaWorld and the Universal Orlando theme parks are in Orlando but Disney World is just outside the city.

Vacation Home or Condo Rentals can be wonderful and economical choices for larger families, for people want separate sleeping spaces, or full kitchens. Again, you need factor in parking fees and car rental costs, if you won't have your own vehicle.

Timeshares Orlando has a ton of timeshare companies and owners who participate in a timeshare exchange program are sure to find accommodations. Don't own a timeshare? You might be able to rent a friend's week for less than you would spend on a typical hotel stay - again, don't forget about parking and car rental costs when you're comparing costs.

Camping at Disney World This is a fun option for people who enjoy a relaxed, camping setting. Remember that Florida gets lots of rain and that it can get really hot and make sure your equipment can handle those conditions.

Book your accommodations as early as possible Booking as soon as possible will help you get the best price and the best availability during your vacation. Most options allow you to cancel with advanced notice and you'll be free to move on to the next steps in the Disney vacation planning process.

Need help sorting through these options? Our expert travel agents can provide no-obligation quotes and information and you never pay any fees for using our services.

Step 3 - Set your Disney World Vacation Itinerary

Decide Which Day You Will Visit Which Disney World Theme Park.

Your Disney vacation itinerary is different than your park touring plan - the itinerary is the overall schedule showing which park you are visiting on a particular day during your Florida vacation. Many people assume that the crowds are equally dispersed across the four Disney parks on any given day but this is not true. There really are Best Days or Better Days for visiting one Walt Disney World theme Park over another. This information is crucial for families visiting during holidays or school breaks, when crowds are high. Travelling off season doesn't eliminate the need for a good itinerary either because you need a schedule that adjusts for lower park hours and decreased numbers of performance times, shows and entertainment.

Two families going to Disneyworld with over the same dates but with different itineraries will have very different experiences. One will have crowds and long lines, while the other will wait no longer than 10-15 minutes per attraction. A number of factors contribute to this. For example, you need to know how Disney's Extra Magic Hours are going to affect you, whether you are a Disney resort guest or not. Parades, shows, and fireworks are not always offered every day and some days have more live entertainment than others. Certain parks may close early because of special events.

In this step, you need to make a few decisions:

* What theme parks will you visit?

* How many days will you spend in each park?

* Do you want to be able to start in one Disney park and then move to a different park on the same day?

* If you're staying at a Disney resort, will you participate in Extra Magic Hours (late or early hours only offered to Disney hotel guests.

If possible, I recommend that most families plan on two days in the Magic Kingdom, with one day in Epcot, Disney's Hollywood Studios, and Disney's Animal Kingdom parks. You may want to adjust this for shorter stays or to include SeaWorld or the Universal Orlando theme parks. You might want to include water parks, if you're coming during the hot months.

Disney World offers a Park Hopper option to their tickets for guests who want to start in one Disney theme park and move to another within the same day. It can be a nice feature but it'll cost you about $58 per person, though this option is good for the length of your tickets. Each of the Disney theme parks can easily fill one or more days so give some careful consideration to whether or not this option will really benefit you, especially if this is a first visit.

Extra Magic Hours - (Special hours only available to Disney resort hotel guests) Disney promotes this as a benefit to staying at their hotels but we recommend that everyone gives a little thought before participating in the Extra Magic Hour park(s) of the day. Disney has 33,000 hotel rooms and no one goes to Disney alone - that means a lot of people are pointed in the same direction at the same time. The Extra Magic Hours park will always be the most crowded park of the day and you might have a much nicer time by going to a less busy park. Will your family really be up and out of the resort in time to take advantage of an 8:00AM opening? Will your toddler still be awake for the late night hours? Early birds, families with older children, and guests with Park Hopper tickets often enjoy the Extra Magic Hours so don't rule them out completely - just decide in advance if-and-when Extra Magic Hours will benefit you.

Important Tip: Knowing which parks have Extra Magic Hours is is doubly important if you are not staying at a Disney resort - you don't want to get to the theme park and find a bunch of Disney guests in line in front of you.

3 Ways to Plan Your Disney World Vacation Itinerary:

1) Do it yourself. Disney posts their park hours here about 6 months in advance

2) Let someone do it for you - At Build A Better Moues Trip, we create custom itineraries for all of our clients.

3) Subscribe to TouringPlans.com and use their excellent crowd calendars

Build A Better Mouse Trip

Toll free: 877-815-6515

Disney World Dining Reservation Assistance
Disney World Dining Reservation Assistance

Step 4 - Book Your Disney Dining Reservations and Special Events

Having your itinerary set makes it a lot easier to book your Disney dining reservations. Disney World is about twice the size of Manhattan island and there are restaurants spread out across the four theme parks, Downtown Disney and the Disney World hotels. Knowing where you'll be on any given day keeps you from wasting hours going from point to point just to have a meal. If you want to dine at an Epcot restaurant, you'll want to reserve it for the day you'll be in Epcot. You might also need to make golf tee-time reservations, spa reservations, tour reservations, or purchase tickets for a special event, which is easier to do when you have a good start on an itinerary.

Disney will allow you to make a reservation up to 180 days in advance for a table-service / full-service restaurant. Princess meals, character meals, and popular locations may fill completely months in advance. For Disney World dining reservations, call 407-WDW-DINE (407-939-3463)

Quick-service restaurants are readily available all over Disney World and do not accept or require reservations. These are locations where you order at a counter and take your food to your table yourself.

Disney World Itineraries and Touring Plans
Disney World Itineraries and Touring Plans

Step 5 - Get Your Disney Theme Park Touring Plans

A good touring plan can cut time in lines by 3 or more hours per day.

We are convinced that everyone benefits from good Disney theme park touring plans. A touring plan is simply a tool that lets you approach the Disney theme park rides and attractions in a way that minimizes lines. You don't skip anything - you just do things smarter so that you don't end up following - and lining up behind - the crowd.

During busy times, a good plan will absolutely keep you ahead of the crowds and out of the lines - our clients typically wait less than 20 minutes for rides, even thrill rides and headliners. During less crowded times, a good plan factors in shorter park hours and fewer performance times. But the most important benefit of a good plan is that everyone gets to ride and see the things that they are looking forward to because everyone's priorities are included in a plan that tours the parks efficiently and effectively.

The sources of Disney World touring plans we recommend are

1) The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World

2) A subscription to TouringPlans.com

They're both excellent. The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World is great for anyone who doesn't enjoy online research and has the advantage of including information about SeaWorld, Universal Studios, and Islands of Adventures. TouringPlans.com doesn't include the SeaWorld and Universal Orlando information but it might be a better choice for anyone only visiting the Disney World theme parks because they have more options in their printable touring plan section - including late start plans - and they have some "Lines & Waits" applications for smart phone users.

People sometimes wonder why touring plans work; after all, if everyone uses one - won't that just create lines? Yes, it would if everyone used a touring plan but most people don't. In fact, research shows that less than 25% of all guests to Disney World even check the park hours before arriving. Less than 10% of all guests use any type of touring plan at all. Can you see where it is to your advantage to have better information than 90% of the people around you?

Other people wonder if having a plan takes away some of the wonder and magic. I just have to ask, "Do you find long lines wonderful and magical?" Knowing that you won't miss anything that is important to you makes the whole experience more relaxing and the time you would've spent in line can be used to enjoy more attractions or even to take a break...doesn't that sound wonderful and magical?

Recommended Resources for Your Next Disney Vacation

Sing Along Songs - Disneyland Fun
Sing Along Songs - Disneyland Fun

Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom at Disney World are very much alike. Families heading to the Disney theme parks with small children should consider getting this fun sing-along DVD. Before your trip, it help your children know what to expect from your Disney vacation. Then, after your home, the video will help your children remember the things they experienced. It is cute and entertaining.

 

We'd love to hear from you so ask a question or share a Disney vacation memory.

Tell Us About Your Disney Vacation Plans

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    • ICM-Vacations LM profile image

      ICM-Vacations LM 3 years ago from Swarthmore, pa

      This is great,, need this for my kids

    • BuildABetterMouse profile image
      Author

      Steve and Annette 5 years ago

      @JoshK47: Thank you for stopping by and blessing my lens - I really appreciate it.

    • profile image

      JoshK47 5 years ago

      Definitely some excellent tips here - blessed by a SquidAngel!

    • profile image

      nothlybckhm 5 years ago

      My Disney trips never work out.

      My first time I got chicken pox.

      The second time I got the flu.

      Quite honestly I'm scared to find out what will happen if I go back!

    • profile image

      Traveller579 5 years ago

      Fantastic lenses! Very informative! I like it

    • KandH profile image

      KandH 5 years ago

      Great info here as always :) Blessed!

    • Camden1 profile image

      Camden1 5 years ago

      I love using a park touring plan when you got to Disney. My kids always laugh about them, but they really save time.

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 5 years ago

      Awesome tips here.