A foolproof guide for taking the stress out of some tricky planning.
Whether you're a seasoned professional when it comes to scheduling family vacations or have never even been on It's A Small World, planning a trip to Disney can be difficult for anyone. There's so much to remember along the way, often before you even leave home, and having a reliable checklist can be just the thing to ensure it all goes smoothly.
Many of these travel perks (ride reservations! complimentary bus service!) are only available to guests staying at Walt Disney World resort hotels, which is why it's often recommended. From choosing which room you'll sleep in to deciding where you'll eat breakfast before you've even book your airfare, the idiosyncrasies of Disney planning are many. We've made a foolproof list to help you keep track—and to take the stress out of planning. Just review, and prepare to book your dream trip without losing your mind.
Before you book:
Cross-check your vacation dates.
Research event calendars online and make sure your dates don't overlap with any special events, like RunDisney marathons or Night of Joy weekend, which often mean larger crowds. If your trip coincides with the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival or the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, that's fine, but generally speaking, Spring Break, summer months, and Christmastime tend to be the busiest. By contrast, the slowest times coincide with the beginning of the school year after breaks (January and February on non-event days or holiday weekends; mid-August to mid-October).
Choose which hotel is best for you.
Deciding between the 28 hotels Walt Disney World operates is not easy, which is why we've pulled together our picks for helping you do just that. Read through it to discover which deluxe, moderate, or value Walt Disney World resort hotel is the perfect fit for your group, price point, and vacation style.
Decide on a park ticket.
Multi-day park hopper tickets are purchased most frequently, but definitely consider if single park-per-day tickets could work best for your family. Keep in mind: once you stay for a few days, the price to add an additional day dwindles.
Once your trip is on the calendar:
Make an initial schedule.
Sounds crazy, sure, but planning which day you'll spend in which park in advance will help you in the long run. At the same time, try to find out what your children, friends, or family are all hoping to see or do. Once you know when you'll be in the parks and what you need to accomplish, you can begin to make dinner reservations that end in time for the Magic Kingdom fireworks show your spouse is dying to see, or you can select Fast Passes to meet Mickey Mouse before your little ones get sleepy.
Book your dining reservations.
While you still can! It's best to grab one if it's available instead of waiting until you're certain of your plans. Walt Disney World dining reservations open 180 days in advance for Disney parks guests or your WDW hotel resort check-in date, giving Disney hotel guests a small priority when booking reservations for a trip and, naturally, causing preferred restaurants to fill up quickly. A credit card is necessary in order to book, but as long as you cancel the night before, you won't be charged a $10 per person cancellation fee.
Three months before you leave:
Make FastPass+ reservations.
Disney resort hotel guests can begin booking their choice of attractions 60 days out from when they arrive, while other hotel guests and general ticket holders can book 30 days in advance. They tend to go quickly, but prioritize what you absolutely want to do above all, and if you can snag a time for the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, do it. (It regularly has one of the longest lines at Magic Kingdom.)
Personalize your Magic Bands.
Magic Bands are complimentary for all guests in your party when you stay at a Walt Disney World resort hotel. Set them up in advance so individual names can be printed on the inside and everyone can select their own color, and they'll arrive in a decorative box before your vacation. (If you do not personalize or set them up less than 10 days before your trip, you'll automatically receive a grey Magic Band at check-in.)
Set up Disney's Magical Express.
When your flights are set, call (407) 939-1936 to arrange for a ride on the complimentary bus service between Orlando International Airport and your Walt Disney World resort hotel. Once you're set, DME will mail out luggage tags for if you choose to check your bags. If not, your activated MagicBand and reservation details are all you need to board.
Finalize your schedule—even if you change it upon arrival.
You don't need to stick to it, and you certainly don't need to accomplish everything on the list, but it helps to have a rudimentary idea of what you'd like to do throughout your day at the park, so no imperative meet-and-greet with Woody or midday parade viewing goes forgotten. Work around your FastPass+ times, leave extra time for meals, and don't forget to plan naptimes for any youngsters who need one. Kids are up all hours of the night at Walt Disney World, and afternoon breaks are the best way to make sure they're up to see nighttime fireworks.
Two weeks before you depart:
Consider purchasing Memory Maker.
It's not at all necessary for your trip, especially considering that Disney's PhotoPass photographers will take pictures on your camera or phone, but it comes down to personal preference, and if you prefer the ease of getting all of your photos for one lump sum. If the idea of spending nearly $150 to have photos in front of every landmark seems pointless, forget it, but if you are on your honeymoon, enjoy scrapbooking, or are simply on the hunt for a good holiday card photo, purchasing in advance will save you $20 and have you spending less on the grounds.
Look at your hotel's transportation options.
Most WDW resort hotels operate with buses, but some also use monorails and ferries. It helps to have a baseline understanding of how you'll get around as well as where the various parks are in relation to each other, since the property is incredibly vast. Familiarize yourself with your hotel's options, and play around on Google Maps to get an idea of how early you may have to leave to make it to meals or FastPass+ reservations in time. (Buses generally arrive every 20 minutes, but can vary greatly.) If you have any ADR's at restaurants inside hotels and will be traveling there from your own hotel, plan to leave up to 90 minutes before, as travel between hotels via the parks can be time consuming.
Check-in for your stay.
The actual check-in process is simple, but you'll have a small selection of options—typically floor and wing preference—and it can be tough to know which is best for where you're staying. There are plenty of websites that will help sort which preferences to request upon checking in, so do a bit of research before you select yours, as some hotel rooms can be terribly far from the hotel's main building, and the right request can put you steps away from Disney transportation.
Look up Walt Disney World park hours.
Double-check the WDW calendar for Extra Magic Hours, so you'll be able to plan your visit and adjust your schedule acccordingly.
Double-check ADRs for last-minute cancellations.
Many people cancel reservations closer to the date of their trip when their plans become finalized. Check preferred restaurant websites regularly, particularly at off-hours, and the ideal reservation could very well appear.
Prior to flight check-in:
Attach colored luggage tags to checked luggage.
By using the Disney's Magical Express luggage tags that will have arrived in the mail, your checked luggage will be brought directly from the airport to your hotel room for flights arriving between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m. That way, you can simply arrive to the airport, board the bus, and be on your way. (Note: Luggage, particularly carry-ons, can also be brought directly onto Disney's Magical Express buses if preferred.)
Pack Magic Bands in your carry-on, purse, or backpack.
If you've signed up to do so during online check-in, you will receive a text message alerting you that your room is ready, allowing you to bypass the lengthy lines at the front desk and enter your room directly with your Magic Band. It also allows you to access your park tickets immediately, meaning you have some freedom to explore the properties before your bags arrive.
Download the MyDisneyExperience and Shop Disney Parks app.
Adding this dynamic duo to your smartphone will allow you to navigate the ground of Walt Disney World so much more easily. Use MyDisneyExperience for things like changing FastPass reservations on the fly, checking how long the wait time is for the Tower of Terror, and even pulling up character meet-and-greet times while on the grounds. Conversely, Shop Disney Parks is ideal for locating makeup products you may have forgotten, certain stuffed animals that aren't carried everywhere, and that one souvenir a co-worker made you promise to pick up.
Navigating Walt Disney World can be tricky, but remember: you're on vacation! All that hard work beforehand will pay off and you'll be zooming through the lines and living life well—but if anything goes awry, cast members are always on hand to offer help and advice, ensuring that you're having the trip of your dreams.