(Last updated 9/10/2020)
Okay guys, buckle up and put those lap bars down, because this is going to be long one!
Planning a trip to Disney World can almost feel more intimidating than planning a European vacation (and I’m really not even kidding). Beyond the hotel and dining and transportation, you also have to think about the parks and rides and crowds and fireworks shows and parades and all kinds of reservations.
But planning ahead will help you maximize your time in the parks, so here are 9 steps to guide you through planning your trip to Disney World! It doesn’t have to be as intimidating as it seems! And it can even be fun! I promise!
And tip #1 before we even start is this: start planning as far in advance as you can! This will help you save more money, plan a better itinerary, and book hard to get reservations (more on that later).
COVID-19 Note: Things at the parks are currently VERY different. We really hope that if you are starting to plan your Disney trip now (in 2020) things will be back to semi-normal by the time you go. But until then, we’ve done our best to include pertinent information in this post about how parks are operating in the midst of COVID-19.
Our honest advice: don’t go during COVID-19! Disney is doing their best to make things safe, but going to theme park still presents a big risk. If you are traveling from out of town for a big Disney trip we highly recommend you wait until things are safer so you can enjoy your vacation without worrying about your own safety or the safety of those around you!
So with that said…here are 9 steps for planning your magical Disney World trip — a complete guide!
Step 1: Choose a Time To Go to Disney World
There are a lot of things to consider when choosing a time frame for your trip: school vacations, weather, festivals (like Flower and Garden or Food and Wine at Epcot), crowd calendars, parties (like Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party).
Decide what the most important factor is for you. Do you want to make sure you go during a school break? Do want to be there for a certain party or festival? Then use your priorities to make your decision.
It used to be that there were certain times of the year that were less crowded at Disney World, but in recent years this has become less and less the case.
But don’t let the crowd calendar dictate your plans for a couple of reasons.
- Sometimes parks with low crowd predictions actually get crowded because everyone sees that low crowd number and flocks that direction!
- It is still possible to have a great time at Disney even when it’s crowded. It’s all about planning ahead and managing expectations (no, when Magic Kingdom is at a 10/10 crowd level you will not be able to ride Big Thunder Mountain 10 times in a row).
So all that to say, go to Disney World when it works out best for you to go! We don’t necessarily recommend going between Christmas and New Year’s unless you like standing in a wall of people. But other than that, most times will be manageable. If you can visit during the week it will generally be less crowded than weekends. But you can make the most of your time no matter when you visit!
Step 2: Set a Disney Budget
I’ll just say this right now: whatever you budget to spend at Disney World, expect to spend more. BUT Disney World can be done on almost any budget!
To decide on a budget, factor in the costs of lodging, transportation, park tickets, and dining, plus extras like souvenirs and snacks.
Determining your budget though will help you decide on a couple of things:
- How many days you can spend at Disney World
- What hotel you will stay at
- If you want to drive or fly to Orlando (of course, this also depends on where you live!)
If you are looking to save money, there are value resorts (like Pop Century and the All Star resorts) that are super economical. And there are all kinds of blog posts out there about doing Disney on a budget with suggestions like packing your own food (yes! you can bring food into Disney World!), staying off property, and buying discounted gift cards ahead of time.
Step 3: Choose a Hotel and Dining Plan
Now that you’ve decided on a time frame and set a budget, it’s time to choose a hotel and a dining plan.
Deciding on a Disney World Hotel
You can choose to stay either on-property or off-property. Staying on-property gives you access to Disney transportation to and from the parks and perks like Extra Magic Hours. Honestly, staying on-property is my favorite because you are completely immersed in Disney magic.
If you are staying on property, think about what you want to be close to. What parks do you want to be closest to? Do you want easy monorail access to Magic Kingdom? Or do you want to be able to walk to Hollywood Studios or Epcot?
There are also great off-property options within an easy car ride to Disney. (You can use Uber or Lyft to get to the parks. We don’t recommend renting a car because of parking fees.) And some of these hotels are partnered with Disney, meaning you might still have access to Extra Magic Hours and 60 days FastPass+ reservations.
COVID-19 Note: Currently, Extra Magic Hours and FastPass+ are not being offered.
As you choose your hotel, know that there are also great ways to get discounts at Disney resorts. Besides discounts that Disney sometimes runs, you can rent Disney Vacation Club points from vendors like Dave’s (think of it like renting someone else’s time share). If you want to rent DVC points, plan to request them 11 months out, and even then you might not find exactly what you are looking for.
Booking through a travel agent often comes with some kind of discount, too. Even if you don’t use the travel agent for anything else, book through one just for the room rates they offer!
There is really no reason pay “rack rate” (the price listed on the website) for a Disney hotel room because there are all kinds of ways to get discounts!
Choosing a Dining Plan (or Lack Thereof)
Disney offers 4 different dining plans:
- Disney Quick Service Dining Plan (2 Quick Service meal credits per night of stay)
- Disney Dining Plan (1 Quick Service and 1 Table Service meal credit per night of stay)
- Disney Dining Plan Plus (new plan! 2 meal credits per night of stay for any kind of meal)
- Disney Deluxe Dining Plan (3 meal credits per night of stay for any kind of meal)
Each of these dining plans also includes 2 snack credits per day and a refillable mug.
Be aware that not all credit usage is created equal. While many table service meals require 1 table service credit, special meals (mostly character meals) often require TWO table service credits. Meaning you might have to ALSO pay for a meal out of pocket later on.
Before you commit to a dining plan, do the math! This is a great dining plan calculator where you can plug in hypothetical meals and see if the dining plan is worth it to you.
Spoiler alert! Almost every single time it is NOT going to be worth it. Unless your meals line-up exactly with what your dining plan offers and you are getting the most expensive entrée at each restaurant and using all of your snack credits, it’s rare to find that the dining plan is a better deal.
COVID-19 Note: Dining plans are currently unavailable.
Step 4: Make a Hotel Reservation and Buy Park Tickets
Now that you’ve made so many decisions, the next step for planning your Disney World trip is to actually make some reservations and buy tickets!
COVID-19 Notes: The very first things you should do is check the Disney Park Pass Reservation calendar to make sure your dates are open. Entrance to the park requires both a ticket and reservation (Park Pass). Check to make sure reservations for your days are open before you commit to a hotel reservation. Be sure you are checking the correct calendar, as there are three separate ones: Resort Guests, Theme Park Ticket Guests, and Annual Passholders.
Make your hotel reservation and purchase your theme park tickets either through Disney or a travel agent.
(If you are renting DVC points, you will have to book your park tickets separately from your hotel reservation.)
There are a few things to consider when booking park tickets.
- Consider booking one less park days than days you are at Disney. Having a rest day mid-trip can help with your stamina because Disney can take it out of you! (In the best way, of course.) You can spent the day at the pool, shopping at Disney Springs, or finding activities around your resort (they often have events going on during the day).
- Think about whether or not you want a park-hopper ticket, which would allow you to go to more than one park per day. (COVID-19 Note: Park-hopper tickets are currently unavailable.) If you don’t get a park-hopper ticket at the beginning though, you can easily upgrade it later.
You should also look into any tickets you want for special events at this point (like Magic Kingdom parties, After Hours events, or Early Morning Magic). The tickets might not be available yet, but mark down on your calendar reminders to check for availability as your trip gets closer.
COVID-19 Note: AS SOON as you book your park tickets, get online and make your Disney Park Pass Reservation. Both a park ticket and a Park Pass Reservation for each ticket is required for entrance to the park. Also, most special events, like parties, are not available.
Step 5: Arrange Airfare and Transportation
If you are planning to fly to Orlando, we recommend you begin tracking airline prices as soon as possible.
If you are flying and staying on property, you will be eligible to take Disney’s Magical Express from MCO to your resort. The bus will also transport your luggage (although it may arrive a few hours after you do, and this service is not available before 5:00 a.m. or after 10:00 p.m.).
COVID-19 Notes: Complementary luggage pick-up and drop-off is not available. Be sure to pick up your own bags from baggage claim and carry them to the bus.
If you are not staying on property, be sure to look at rental car or Uber/Lyft/taxi options.
Step 6: Draft a Rough Itinerary
Now is the time to start thinking about what parks you want to go to on what days.
We recommend slotting the parks with harder to get FastPass+ reservations for the end of your trip, as it will be easier for you to find FastPass+ reservations when your booking day comes. (I’m looking at you Flight of Passage and Seven Dwarves Mine Train.)
Now is also a good time to start priority lists.
- What rides are absolute must-dos for you?
- What restaurants do you want to eat at and what days would you like to eat there?
Remember that the plan you make at this point should be flexible, as you will most likely not be able to get everything you want.
COVID-19 Notes: Currently, FastPass+ is not available. Dining reservations are required for most table service meals, but there is some same-day availability.
Step 7: Make Dining Reservations
At 180 days out (yes! it’s super early!) you can make dining reservations for your trip for 10 days (if you are there longer than 10 days (which, uhm, can I join your family?) you’ll have to make the reservations for the last days in the subsequent days following your first dining reservation day).
Dining reservations open online at 6 a.m. EST and via phone at 7 a.m. EST. Be online early and don’t freak out when the website crashes. Just have faith it will all work out!
When the time comes, make the reservations that are hardest to get (like Cinderella’s Royal Table or Be Our Guest) first, and then go from there.
If you can’t get what you want, book something else and then keep checking back. People are constantly changing their plans/reservations, so that coveted reservation you were looking for may become open! I’ve made dining reservations before because I couldn’t find what I wanted, only to discover the reservation I wanted became available 10 minutes later!
And remember, you don’t have to have a dining reservation for every meal–only for table service restaurants! There are also tons of great Quick Service restaurants in Disney World and you could honestly go to the park with zero dining reservations and still have some great dining experiences.
At this point, you should also be able to book some special events, like parties.
COVID-19 Note: Currently, dining reservations are being made at 60 days out. Not all dining experiences are available, especially character dining experiences. A new feature in the My Disney Experience app now also lets you check for walk-up availability.
Step 8: Plan and Make FastPass+ Reservations
COVID-19 Note: The FastPass+ system is currently not available, but boarding groups for Rise of the Resistance ARE in effect.
Depending on when you were able to get dining reservations, you may decide to alter your itinerary draft.
Maybe you really wanted Be Our Guest dinner for Wednesday but got it for Thursday instead, in which case, you might scoot that Magic Kingdom day over one.
Then (if you haven’t already) make a list of the FastPass+ reservations you want to get. You can book 3 FastPass+ reservations in advance for each day, and you should aim for the rides that have the longest lines.
Note that some parks have tiers for FastPass+ reservations, meaning you can only book one FastPass+ for Tier 1 and must book your other two FastPass+ reservations for Tier 2.
Here’s a quick FastPass+ cheat sheet of the ones you might consider getting:
Magic Kingdom: Seven Dwarves Mine Train, Peter Pan’s Flight, Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
Epcot: Soarin’, Test Track, The Seas with Nemo and Friends, Spaceship Earth
Hollywood Studios: Smuggler’s Run, Mickey and Mickey’s Runaway Railroad, Slinky Dog Dash, Toy Story Mania, Alien Swirling Saucers, Rockin’ Roller Coaster
Animal Kingdom: Flight of Passage, Na’Vi River Journey, Expedition Everest, Kilimanjaro Safaris
Remember that not all rides have FastPass+ though, and some rides, like Rise of the Resistance, may have virtual boarding groups you must join while you are in the park in order to ride. Right now, Rise of the Resistance boarding groups are opening 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., so be in Hollywood Studios with your phone open and ready to book a boarding group in order to ride ROTR.
Also note that some rides (Smuggler’s Run, Rockin’ Roller Coaster, Test Track, and Expedition Everest) have single rider lines. So if you are in party that doesn’t mind splitting up, using the single rider line can save you a good amount of time.
Book your FastPass+ reservations for earlier in the day, because after you use those three you can reserve more while you are at the park. But try not to book FastPass+ reservations for the first hour the park is open, because you will likely not need them as lines will be shorter then than they are later in the day.
FastPass+ reservations are booked at 60 days out from your arrival day at 7:00 a.m. EST time for guests staying in the park. For guests staying off property, FastPass+ reservations can be made 30 days out.
Like with dining reservations, don’t freak out when the website crashes. Just keep trying. Book your hardest to get FastPass+ reservations first (no matter what day they fall on). These would be reservations like Flight of Passage, Slinky Dog Dash, and Minnie and Mickey’s Runaway Railroad. After that we recommend booking starting on the first day of your trip.
In the days leading up to your FastPass+ day, Touring Plans can show you what FastPass+ reservations are still available, which may help you make a decision for what time you want to try to book something.
Like dining reservations, you can only book for 10 days at a time, so if you are staying for longer, you will have to book other FastPass+ reservations on subsequent days.
And again, if you don’t get what you want, keep trying! People are changing plans and dropping FastPass+ reservations all the time, even on the day you are walking into the park!
Also–make sure you have other reservations taken care of at this point, too. If you are going to need to rent a stroller, make sure you have a reservation or other plan in place. Now is also the time to make sure you’ve bought Disney’s PhotoPass, if that’s something you’d like to do. And if you are going to participate in other special events, like parties or Early Morning Magic, make sure you have those tickets booked at this point.
Step 9: Make Your Disney World Final Itinerary
Now that you have your Dining Reservations and FastPass+ reservations mostly nailed down, you can make a final itinerary for your trip! The last step (aside from packing) for planning your Disney World trip!
Remember, there is no wrong way to do Disney here. You might want to completely wing it aside from the reservations you have. You might want to make a detailed itinerary with every ride in order (just remember to be adaptable!). If you want to do this, track wait times leading up to your trip, seeing what rides tend to have the shortest lines at what time of day.
Personally, I love to go with a well thought out plan, knowing what group of rides we are doing in what order. I find that it cuts down on our wait time a lot! If you do this, be sure to build in some down time though, too, so you can enjoy the atmosphere of the parks without rushing from ride to ride.
When you are creating an itinerary here are some general guidelines:
- At park opening (aka rope drop) go for some of the most popular rides.
- Start using your Fastpass+ reservations after the park has been open for about an hour.
- Break for lunch either early or late in order to avoid lunch crowds, then use normal lunch time for rides!
- In the afternoon consider either going back to your hotel for a break from the heat or going to shows/other indoor entertainment or rides to cool off.
- After you have used your first 3 FassPass+ reservations, you can book more to use that same day!
- Don’t forget to include nighttime entertainment in your plan! The fireworks shows are worth seeing!
And that’s it! Nine simple (ha!) steps to guide you through planning your Disney World trip. I know it sounds intimidating and like a lot, but knowing these details should take some of the stress out of planning your trip.
Remember, no matter how your plans shake out, whether you get that coveted Cinderella’s Royal Table Dining Reservation or that Flight of Passage FastPass+ or not, your trip to Disney will still be filled with magical memories!
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Looking for more Disney travel tips? Check our our Guide to Disney World Rides by Age.