The most frequently asked questions I receive with respect to Disney surround planning and how to go about doing it. I get it. There is so much information out there. Where do you even start? Over the past six years, we've vacationed at Disney World in Florida five times so I have quite a bit of experience in planning. I've broken down my planning process into eight steps. I actually enjoy the planning aspect of our vacations. Make it fun, not stressful!
1. Decide when to go
I know this one seems obvious. Duh, Sarah, of course, we need to decide when we are going on vacation. That's not what I mean. The crowds at Disney fluctuate and if your vacation falls during one of the busiest weeks of the year, you may not have the most magical time. Knowing the "Disney seasons" will greatly help your planning. All holidays are busy. This makes sense, right? People usually have holidays off from school and work so they'll plan a vacation to fall around holidays. I recommend avoiding holiday weeks/weekends if at all possible.
The parks/resorts are also crowded during Disney-only events - such as road races, Food and Wine Festival, and little league baseball tournaments. Unfortunately, I do not have a calendar outlining the best and worst times but searching the internet should let you know if your vacation is during a busy time. And I know that sometimes you simply do not have many options on when you can vacation. Vacations need to be planned around school, work and activities.
Being from the North we have a slight advantage when it comes to summer season. Summers at Disney are extremely busy because school is out. Makes sense. However, summer season at Disney is usually June through mid-August. We don't go back to school until the very end of August, and sometimes not until after Labor Day in September. The end of August is a slower time at Disney so if we want to vacation in the summer when the girls are out of school, we plan for an end of August trip.
2. Choose where to stay
This is a multi-step process. First, do you want to stay onsite or offsite? Personally, we always stay onsite. I feel like it adds more to the vacation and I prefer the proximity to the parks. You are in a Disney bubble when you stay at a Disney resort. We are able to take breaks back at the resort, if need be, and quickly return the parks later on in the day.
If you are staying onsite, you have many different options to choose from. You'll need to decide if you want to stay at a value, moderate or deluxe resort and then pick which resort.
Another option is the Swan and Dolphin Resort, which is located next to Disney's Yacht Club. It's technically not a Disney World hotel, but it is. Yes, confusing, I know. I have friends who have stayed here through a special deal and enjoyed their vacation. It's worth checking out.
See my post Benefits of staying at a Disney resort . . . or not.
(Taken at Art of Animation resort)
3. Search for special offers
How do I do this? The easiest way is to simply check the special offers page on the Walt Disney World's website. Here is a link. Keep in mind that in addition to offers from Disney, there are travel agents who offer their own deals. You'll have to search around for those. Follow Disney on social media for notifications on the release of special offers.
Although I have this listed as the third step, you may want to do this in conjunction with steps #1 and #2.
Note: If you book your vacation 9-12 months in advance, there may not be any special offers available at the time of booking. Check back! If a special offer does become available and you've already booked your vacation, you'll need to contact Disney and rebook under the special offer. If you've used a travel agent, they will rebook for you. Special offers are usually limited so you'll want to keep up to date on offer releases.
4. Book your vacation
Yay! You can book directly with Disney yourself online or over the phone, or you can use a travel agent. I have a detailed post here - The best way to book your Disney vacation - that you may want to read for more information.
5. Plan parks by day
I feel like this step is where you really get into the nitty gritty planning stages of a Disney vacation. In order to book FastPasses and make dining reservations, you need to map out which parks you plan to visit on which days. There are websites out there which predict crowd levels by park by day. Some offer their advice for free, others have fees. I usually check a few different ones. If you do the same, you'll see that they quite often vary in opinion. Keep in mind that sometimes a park may be listed as one to avoid for the very reason you want to visit it. For example, if there are extra magic hours at Magic Kingdom, that park will receive a lower rating for the day because more guests will be there to take advantage of additional time in the park.
I actually feel that the crowd level when you go is more important than day by day park crowd levels. If you're vacationing at Disney in July, does it matter if Magic Kingdom has a predicted crowd level of a 9/10 or a 10/10? No, not really. I usually plan our days based on what we want to do first and then fill in the other days. Suppose we want to see the nighttime parade at Magic Kingdom, a park we usually spend two days visiting. I'll make sure the parade is scheduled for the two days we plan to visit MK even if MK is listed as the park to avoid for those days.
6. Create draft itineraries for each day
Basically, this is where you decide what you and your family want to do each day. When you visit Magic Kingdom, which rides and attractions do you wish to experience that day? Do you plan to take a break to swim in the afternoon? Where do you want to eat? I use the word draft because I always feel that it's best to have a plan but to also have some flexibility because nothing is ever going to go exactly as planned. This step is needed for the remaining two steps.
7. Make your ADRs (Advance Dining Reservations)
You can book your ADRs 180 days in advance. Please see my post Everything you need to know about Disney Dining Reservations for more detail.
8. Secure your FastPass+ reservations
You can make FP+ reservations 30 to 60 days in advance, depending on whether or not you are staying at a Disney resort. For more information, please see my post Your Guide to FastPass+
Not a step, but important - have fun!!!
(I've added this to my Disney board on Pinterest if you'd like to save it there.)