We’re scheduled for a Walt Disney World vacation in February, bringing the youngest boys for the first time. Yes, I am excited. But honestly (until earlier today) I have been a wreck trying to figure out just how to do this Disney World planning, and how to do it right.
Disney isn’t cheap, and we won’t be going six times a year like many families I know. So, I want to do this correctly – the first time. Luckily, I am friends with “Lindsey,” an amazing Disney resource who is also part of the Disney Moms Park Panel.
With tons of help from her, I have crafted a nine-step plan – I want to share it with you. It is my hope that this helps put your mind at ease, too. I know I feel less anxious with this awesome planning checklist. Time to make some memories!
Pick Your Date
Pick your date. I know – NOW! Right?? Well, hold your horses, Nelly! Disney recommends you make your arrangements at least 6 months out.
As for the time of year, we love this calendar from Undercover Tourist, using crowd levels to judge the best time for a visit. In summary:
- a few weeks in January
- a few weeks in Febraury
- the second half of August and
- most of September
- then weekdays in October, November and December (except for the holiday weeks)
Do you have to visit during the low-crowd time? Heck no! Just be sure to get there early and have a plan!
Select Your Resort
The first thing you need to decide is whether or not to stay “on property.” There are pros and cons to each option, but I can assure you that you’ll NEVER be disappointed about staying on site. Check out some of Sue’s Resort comparisons here.
This planning post isn’t intended to help you make that decision, BUT Disney Tourist Blog has an epic breakdown of the pros and cons of where to stay.
If you decide to stay on a Disney property, keep in mind that each resort offers special perks and activities, so be sure to plan a “resort day” in your agenda.
We are excited to be partnering with Lindsey on TWO great upcoming articles… a breakdown of all the unique things happening at each resort, plus a “style guide” to help you pick the right Disney resort for your family!
If price is your primary concern, then please note there there are four levels of Disney hotels: Value, Moderate, Deluxe and Villa.
The primary differences are as follows:
- Room Size (in square feet)
- Bathroom Size (you get more sinks and space as you pay more)
- The View (Better views mean more money)
- Amenities (Almost every place offers a pool, playground, and entertainment. Pay more for health clubs, character meets, evening entertainment, spa services, etc)
- Meals (Almost every resort offers a food court and poolside bar. Pay more for full service restaurants, character dining options, or a kitchenette)
- Transportation (All resorts offer transport to the parks. Pay more for monorail or boat options.)
- Water Fun (All resorts have a themed pool. Pay more for a “quiet” pool, waterslides, waterfalls, sandy play areas and hot tubs)
If you decide NOT to stay on site..or you are traveling with extended friends/family, then try this Orlando vacation home. We stayed here with friends and LOVED it…YTravelBlog gives you the juicy scoop here – and a great video!
Buy Your Tickets
Time to purchase tickets. You can pick any number of days, from 1-10. Of course, the more days you pick, the more of a discount you get on your ticket price.
After you decide how many days you want to stay, it’s time to determine if you want the Park Hopper pass. It allows you to go between parks on the same day. As of this writing, the Park Hopper pass is about $75 additional per person (total, not per day.)
Should you spend the extra money? Travel With The Magic has an opinion on that.
What about an annual pass? Lindsey told me that “10 days a year” is a good rule of thumb. If you plan on being there more than 10 days (maybe 3 for Spring Break, 4 over Summer, 2 for a Fall birthday, and 3 for the holidays…) then invest in the annual pass. Traveling Mom has some additional insight here.
Finally, note that the water park pass is extra. And, if you want to visit more than a single date, then look at the water park annual pass…it becomes valuable at about 3 visits.
Schedule Your Magical Express Pick Up
If you decide to stay at a Disney resort, you can schedule FREE pick up (and return) from the Orlando airport via the Disney Magical Express.
If you knew your flight information when scheduling your hotel, they probably asked you about reserving a seat. Otherwise, call your hotel booking agent.
What we love is that this is MORE than a shuttle service..it’s a “quick start” to the parks. Here’s why:
After you get off the plane, you’ll go straight to the Magical Express (bring your MagicBands!) If you land between 5am and 10pm, Disney will handle your checked baggage by picking it up from the airport and delivering it to your room…you don’t have to be there, you’ll be too busy enjoying your vacation!
(Coming in after 10pm? You’ll have to get luggage yourself. Consider this as you book your flight!)
So how do they do this? You’ll receive special luggage tags in the mail 2-3 weeks before your flight. Be sure to add these to your checked luggage!
Pro Tip: Luggage Tags are an awesome (free) souvenir. Here are some other unique souvenir ideas for your Disney experience
Make Park Plans and Schedule FastPasses Accordingly
You want to make sure you get on the Peter Pan ride, right? And meet Mickey? And don’t forget the Na’vi River Journey! Well the lines for those rides can be long – and you wouldn’t expect less. They are super popular.
Enter FastPass+. They allow you to reserve access to select WDW attractions and character meet ups. Each day of your visit, in each park, you can make up to 3 FastPass selections. Then, you get on the ride with little or no wait!
Need a guide to the rides at Epcot? We love this post from Family Travel Magazine!
I know, I know. THREE is not enough. But here is the good news: Once you redeem your initial set of FastPass+ selections (or the last arrival window has passed), you can make another FastPass+ selection for the same day. Woot!
You can make your initial FastPass+ selections 30 days in advance – OR 60 days in advance if you are staying on a Disney property. Then, make additional selections during the day either at a park kiosk on on your mobile device.
Here are a few FastPass tips from Lindsey:
- You will want to ride the Barn Stormer first if your littles are new to roller coasters (like mine.) It’s a beginner coaster and will allow you to test their endurance for bigger rides. You shouldn’t need a FP here.
- The Dumbo line can get long but they’ve added a shaded playground and “buzzers” (like the ones in a restaurant) to let you know when your turn is up. You can skip a FP here.
- If you don’t want to use a FP at The Haunted Mansion, you should be ok. There is a lot for the kids to look at while you’re in line.
- Mickey’s PhilharMagic has over 400 seats available, so there is rarely a line. It’s a great place to relax and catch your breath, too.
- It’s a Small World is a classic that seldom needs a FP because of the constantly moving boats.
- Mickey Mouse at Town Square Theatre rarely has a wait over 30 minutes; it’s usually only about 15. Same story for Tinkerbell, also at Town Square.
- Finally, skip using one of your initial 3 FastPasses for the popular Pirates of the Caribbean ride if you can head straight there when you arrive in the morning.
Buy Your Memory Maker Package
We have an entire post about the Memory Maker Package, compliments of Sue. She added some great insights about why you want to do it…
My point here…do it NOW. You don’t want to wait until you’re at the park because the price will be significantly higher.
Also, I want to mention this here. Luxury Travel Mom wrote a great post about what to wear at Disney, with special consideration regarding forever-photos! She makes some great points that I hadn’t considered, so be sure to check it out.
You have to eat while you’re there, so let’s talk food.
If you booked a vacation package, then you have the option to purchase the Disney dining plan. In all honesty, my kiddos don’t eat enough to make it worth while, and they’d prefer to snack all day. Here’s a calculator to see if it’s worth it for your family.
I am excited about the new Mobile Food & Beverage Ordering option. You can now order at select quick-service restaurants using the My Disney Experience app on your phone!
Open the app and select the restaurant you want to order from…pick the meals you and the kiddos want to eat, pay via the app…and then let them know when you arrive. They’ll start preparing your meal, then send you a notification when you can pick it up. No waiting in line!
Right now there are 23 WDW restaurants offering this. We’re very excited about this, and will bring you a full post on it after our visit.
Now – for your evening meals, special character breakfasts, and more, you will want to book online as soon as possible. According to Babble (owned by Disney) these are the top character breakfast experiences.
Purchase Any Special Tours and Events
You know that we don’t post much about Disney (well Sue does…not me.) The boys never really got hooked on Mickey when they were younger…but Star Wars (and Avatar) – well that’s a different story. My guys are nuts about those two!
I had to do something special for them on this trip, so I decided to sign us up for the Star Wars Guided Tour. In the grand scheme of things, it is SUPER affordable. It gives you 8 hours of Stars Wars VIP action, including guaranteed experiences like Jedi Training, Kylo Ren and Chewbacca character greetings, lunch at Backlot Express, and VIP seating for the magnificent nighttime fireworks event!
Other incredible tours include going backstage at Magic Kingdom and Epcot, seeing the costume design space, and even walking the hidden tunnels! You can also go behind the scenes with the animal experts, or take the Aqua Tour at Epcot that includes 30 minutes of snorkel time at The Seas With Nemo!
I can’t wait until our youngest is 8yo so we can all take the Safari tour and Wild Africa Trek!
If I never rode a ride at Disney, that would be fine with me….I could live in complete happiness moving from one special tour to the next…and lucky for me, the options are endless!
Check In To Your Resort Online
Finally, you’ll want to check into your resort online, if your staying at a Disney property.
During this process you can personalize your Magic Band (picking a color and updating the names, if necessary.) Pro Tip from Lindsey: Grab a bag of BitBelts for a few dollars. They are made for Fitbits, but they will fit your Magic Band, and help prevent them from coming off accidentally.
You’ll also attach a credit card to your account and assign a PIN to the account so that you can easily make purchases with your MagicBand.
Do you have to do this? Nope! And Touring Plans has a great post explaining why you may NOT want to do it. Good food for thought…though it’s the route we’re taking on our journey next month.
Need more help? Head over to the Disney Parks Moms Panel. You can search through nearly 100K previously asked questions…or ask your own. Lindsey tells me that there are panelists with various specialties (WDW, Disneyland Resort, Cruise, runDisney, Canadian panelists, as well as foreign language resources.) she also says that, “If you choose a panelist with a vacation style similar to yours, you may get an answer back faster than asking the general panel.” Don’t overlook this amazing FREE resource!
And if you are planning a trip to Disneyland, be sure to check out this tips for Disneyland first timers from our friends at Trekaroo.
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Disclosure: We are heading to Disney in February as their guest. I used an affiliate link on the Pro Tip about the Magic Bands. I begged Lindsey to help me figure out how to navigate Disney, and she happily gave me her time. Opinions here are mine (or Lindsey’s – but I tell you that) and honest as always. 365 Atlanta Traveler is a Visit Florida Digital Marketing Program Partner.
After 18 years in software development, Lesli bailed on the corporate scene. When she’s not traveling, she’s hiking in the mountains or checking out Atlanta’s culinary scene, whiskey in hand.
Lesli has two kiddos -Cooper and Elliot- plus two bonus kids currently at UGA, and she’s happily married to her soul mate.
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