Our family is currently in the final stages of planning our fifth trip to Walt Disney World. Because we now have a handful of successful trips under our belts, family and friends frequently reach out to ask us for our advice and tips, especially when planning a first trip. When you first begin researching a Disney vacation, the information can be overwhelming.
So below are my seven best tips and “must-know” info when planning a first trip. Many of you seasoned Disney moms will already know this information, but since I get these questions so often, I know there are still lots of families who are just getting started.
1. Make every effort to book your trip more than 6 months in advance
We’ve had two trips with advance planning and two that were more spur of the moment. While I don’t regret those spontaneous trips, the advance planned trips were better. You’ll have a much wider range of hotel options, should you choose to stay on Disney property (which we do). More importantly though, you’ll have a much greater chance of snagging ADRs (Advance Dining Reservations) at some of the more popular restaurants. Because you can book ADRs 180+ days in advance, the hot spots tend to fill up that day, and you’ll want to book them the first day they are available. More to come on ADRs.
2. Think outside the box on travel dates
Summer is the most popular time for people to travel to WDW, but we don’t go during that time. Our trips have all been in fall or winter. The main reasons we choose to not go during summer are the heat and the crowds. While it is certainly easier from a scheduling perspective to attend during summer, you will deal with heat and crowds. Consider whether this will be an issue for you. Personally, I don’t want to spend thousands to spend the day sunburned, waiting in long lines.
Because of this, we’ve decided to put aside any parent guilt and just let the kids miss school one week of year. We have flexible jobs that allow us to vacation anytime of year. Additionally, our kids rarely get sick and therefore most years, the Disney days are the only days they miss. And thankfully, our teachers have always been supportive and flexible on letting the kids make up the work.
Your circumstances may be different, and this may not work for you. But if the ONLY thing holding you back is your anxiety about ‘Gasp! They aren’t supposed to just skip school,’ maybe consider thinking outside the box on that. The family bonding time does enough long term good to make up for anything they will miss .
3. Find out when the package discounts are offered
Our family, while always on a budget (who isn’t really?), has always chosen to stay on Disney property for a few reasons. First and foremost for us, and this is really important when budgeting, is that we try to attend during times where Disney offers discount packages.
Our favorite time to go is the week after Thanksgiving. During that week, Disney has historically offered free dining with the purchase of a Magic Your Way package (tickets + hotel). For our family, which now includes two big boys that eat like adults, the savings of not having to feed everyone is well worth it. There is also a Stay, Play, and Dine package offered at certain times of the year (we’ve used it in spring before), which essentially gives you the same cost savings as the Free Dining offer.
Again, visit third party sites when beginning your planning to find out historical data on what travel days these packages are offered, and when they typically release them to the public. With that info, you can begin checking around the time of expected release, and book right away when the discount comes out. My favorite sites for historical discount data are Mousesavers.com and Disneytouristblog.com.
These sites also tend to have crowd calendars, week-by-week schedules of when the part is historically more or less crowded, on a 1-10 or similar scale. (Another advantage to discount weeks is that they tend to also be lower crowd weeks. )
4. Book your restaurants and Fast Passes wisely
Earlier I mentioned that you can book dining reservations 180+ days in advance. But the website says 180. So what’s that + I’m talking about?
Here’s something that a lot of people are unaware of. Dining reservation booking will open up 180 days from the FIRST day of your trip. At that time, you will be able to book for every day of your trip. So some of those reservations will be made 182, 185 days in advance, etc.
Keep in mind that those who booked a week or so before you have had this same advantage. So, on the first 1-3 days of your trip, some of the hardest restaurants to get MAY already be full. Therefore, when your ADR booking window opens up (online or via phone), it is wise to try to get the hardest reservations first, and check at the END of your week first. These days will be much less likely to be already booked.
Then go back and book the front end of your week with restaurants that you like, but that don’t necessarily fill up fast. By doing it this way, we have always been able to get what we want.
We use the exact same method when booking Fast Passes, which can be booked at 60 days in advance of the first day of your trip. Again, book the hard to get passes first and toward the end of your trip (Frozen, Pandora, etc.).
5. Know what attractions and restaurants are most popular
Continuing from number four above, you will want to know what restaurants and attractions are most popular for two reasons. One, so you can consider what experiences your family may love, and two, so you can know where you NEED a reservation or Fast Pass, and where you don’t.
For example, at Animal Kingdom, my family loves the Lion King show. But, in our experience, a Fast Pass for this is not necessary. You can just walk into the show without one. So we book our Fast Passes based on what will save us the most time by having one.
My favorite website for this information is Touringplans.com. They have tons of great information, including typical wait times for all attractions, which will help you to know which ones you need, and which ones you don’t.
6. Choose a mix of dining experiences
While you can certainly have a magical trip without doing any table service dining, for our family, table service dining is a must do, at least one meal per day. Disney breaks down its restaurants into two categories, quick service or table service. Quick service has its merits … it’s fast, cheap and can be found everywhere without having to take much of a break from other attractions. BUT for our family, we plan long days in the parks. So having that table service meal is a time to sit down, slow down, talk and laugh.
When making reservations for these, think about your family and what you all will love. Character dining is fun and is a great way for young kids to see characters without waiting in park lines, but I would advice against planning seven days worth of character meals. At the end of the week, the experiences will all blend together in your mind as an endless parade of Mickey, Minnie and Donald. Consider mixing in some different experiences that might appeal to mom and dad, as well as kids. Dinner at Ohana is one of our favorites for this, as well as the 50’s Prime Time Café, the Hoop-de-doo review, and the Polynesian Luau.
7. Make a (loose) schedule
You can’t enjoy DisneyWorld without some sort of a schedule. Much of the bad experiences I hear about boil down to poor planning or lack of planning altogether. You need those Fast Passes to save you time, and you need your reservations to ensure you get a seat at the table. So make a schedule. The schedule should be realistic about how much park ground you can cover in a specific time period. So for example, you don’t want to book a FP on one side of Magic Kingdom, and another on the other side right behind it.
Look at the park map and plan a loose schedule based on either a clockwise or counterclockwise tour of the park. From there, book your Fast Passes in intervals like early morning, mid-morning, lunch time, early afternoon, etc. This gives you the flexibility to tour the park and end up where you need to be at the right time, without killing yourself to meet a reserved time slot.
Keep the schedule loose enough to allow for freedom to explore each area unrushed, and pit stops for Dole Whips, surprise characters, or whatever might catch your eye! Too rigid is no fun either.
There are many more tips I could give and lots that you’ll want to know once you get there. (I learn something new every trip.) But hopefully these seven can get you started on planning the trip, and answer some of those questions that are holding you back from pulling the trigger. Happy planning!