Everything You Need to Know Before Booking a Disney Vacation
Walt Disney World is essentially a vacation paradise, but planning a trip there can feel quite the opposite.
Hotel booking is one of the most complicated parts of visiting the Magic Kingdom, but with the following resources and advice, you’ll be prepared to become your own travel agent—even if you likely decide to work with one.
There’s plenty to know before visiting the park, too—our first-timer’s guide and glossary have you covered—but the ins and outs of deciding how, where, and why to stay on- or off-property come first. With secret seasonal deals, differing discounts, time share rentals, and plenty other things to keep an eye out for, here’s a helpful primer you may want to read before you commit to your first (or next!) Disney trip:
Walt Disney World is big in the hotel business.
The majority of Disney-affiliated hotels are owned and operated by the company, and thus preferred by guests hoping to stay in the “Disney bubble." Hotels are available at three price ranges—Deluxe, Moderate and Value—which often have rooms under $100 per night that cater to all types of visitors by offering campsites, RV hookups, and even deluxe villas for larger parties. (Our Disney Hotel Guide outlines the details and differences between every WDW resort.) With park buses that can be boarded from each hotel, complimentary Magic Bands, and Disney theming extended as far as the shower curtains, there are plenty of benefits for staying with Disney, but there are three in particular that stand out among the rest: free transportation to and from Orlando’s airport, Extra Magic Hours for additional time in the parks with a ticket purchase, and early Fastpass booking.
But that doesn’t mean you need to stay there.
Booking a nearby, non-Disney-owned hotel is a great option for guests hoping to save money, but also for those who want to splurge. Even Disney’s higher-end hotels aren’t comparable to true luxury hotels, like the Waldorf Astoria Orlando and Four Seasons Orlando, which are as close to the parks as Disney-operated resorts, offer park shuttles and character dining, and have many fine amenities not found at Disney’s own hotels. If you choose to stay further in Orlando at a hotel or rental property, on-site parking will cost $20 per day, but all transportation in and around Walt Disney World is available to the public.
For example: you’ll have to drive yourself to Magic Kingdom, but can take the monorail to Epcot, boats to Wilderness Lodge for lunch, or buses to Animal Kingdom from there. Still can’t decide? Consider the Armed Forces Recreation Center resort Shades of Green or the lower-cost Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin hotels, of which are affiliated and include some of the most important Disney Resort perks (Extra Magic Hours, early Fastpass booking) but not others (airport transportation, Magic Band capabilities).
Decode Disney’s various deals.
When it comes to Disney’s own hotels, there are two ways to book: room-only or as a package, which includes park tickets and/or meal plans, but can be more difficult to cancel. (If you can’t decide which is best for you, this thread may be helpful.) Discounts are often seasonal—WDW Prep School offers a calendar of previous discounts—and tend to be better during low-season times, like mid-January to mid-February and the end of August through the end of September. This is why savvy guests often book vacations before discounts come out and have them applied after the fact, as lengthy phone wait times and limited availability can occur once announced. Discounts are sometimes available for Disney Visa card holders, annual passholders, and Florida residents, as well as military members. If your dates are flexible, cross-check RunDisney and Google a bit to see if there are any marathons or expos going on during your proposed visit, too—booking one week earlier or later could save you money.
Plan your booking attack.
There’s the easy way to book a Disney vacation, and then there’s the hard way. If discounts are as important to you as your time, check Walt Disney World’s special offers page at a minimum and consider hiring a travel agent. Many specialize in Disney vacations—meaning their expert tips and advice come free—and will even monitor discounts after you book for possible price adjustments. If you are hell-bent on saving as much money as possible, compare offers and prices through various websites and online agents, as well. MouseSavers.com, which provides in-depth breakdowns to where discounts can be found, will be an asset. If you have a trip planned but are curious to book another, look into bounceback offers once you arrive, a type of discount offered to guests for future trips that can be utilized only until check-out.
Consider joining—or utilizing—the Disney Vacation Club.
In simple terms, Disney Vacation Club—DVC for short—is a time-share program that allows repeat visitors to purchase a real estate interest in a Disney resort in exchange for points to spend on yearly trips to Walt Disney World and Disney properties around the globe. Joining locks in the rate you pay over time and tends to make booking a little less stressful, as you can choose a room at your preferred resort well in advance of regular guests, but can be costly, as it is a significant long-term commitment. (Disney Tourist Blog offers a good explainer on if joining DVC is right for you.)
There are additional perks, like discounts on annual passes and restaurants, special park lounges and events, and pool access, which come with membership. If you’re spooked by the idea of joining, other options like third-party DVC rental websites and resellers can make the process less permanent and a bit less expensive.
Try to get the room your want, even after booking.
Even though you’ve already chosen where to stay, you still have the opportunity to fine-tune your vacation at Disney-owned properties. Upon checking in online, guests can request the theme, size, location, building, and floor of their room, which sounds minor but isn’t. At some resorts, it’s the difference between taking a secondary bus to one’s hotel wing or simply walking; at others, it can bring unexpected fireworks views or the avoidance of sleepless nights. WDW Prep School offers an exhaustive guide to room preferences, all but ensuring you get the best shot at your dream hotel room. And, if you’re traveling as a couple, there is no option for requesting a king bed online; instead, call ahead so a note is in your profile, and ask again at the front desk upon arrival.