Okay guys, buckle up and put those lap bars down, because this is going to be long one! We’re talking about how to plan a trip to Disney World!
(Is Disney World completely new to you? If so, you might want to check out our Disney 101: Tips for Disney Beginners post first!)
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.
And I just want to say at the beginning…there is A LOT you can do at Disney World. More than you can possibly do even if you were staying there for a whole month. So take a deep breath, prioritize the things that are important to you, and make your trip the vacation YOU want…not the Disney vacation you think you should have.
So with that said…here are 9 steps for how to plan a trip to Disney World — 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, and special events.
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 thatIt 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. Early winter (January and February), early summer (May and June) and early fall (September and October) still tend to be pretty good time to visit. But gone are the days of parks that feel empty.
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
Setting a budget might be one of the most stressful parts in how to plan a trip to Disney World. 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. You’ll also have to consider whether you’ll want to pay for Genie Plus, a skip-the-line upgrade.
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, or you can stay off-site. 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 Early Park Entry or Extended Evening 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. In fact, some of them are technically “on” Disney property, even if they aren’t a Disney branded hotel. (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 them also have their own shuttles.) And some of these hotels are partnered with Disney, meaning you might still have access to some perks.
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. Even then you might not find exactly what you are looking for, so be flexible.
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)
Note: Dining plans are currently unavailable.
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.
Step 4: Draft a Rough Itinerary
Now is the time to start thinking about what parks you want to go to on what days. This way you’ll be ready to make your Park Pass Reservations in the next step.
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.
Step 5: Make a Hotel Reservation
Now that you’ve made so many decisions, the next step for planning your Disney World trip is to actually make some reservations!
The very first thing 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.
If your dates are all clear, then make your hotel reservation. If you are booking through a Disney travel agent, you may be purchasing a package that includes a hotel room as well as park tickets. If you are booking your hotel separately, you can book your park tickets in the next step.
(You can also book your park tickets first, flipping steps 5 and 6. I just like to make my hotel reservations first because it feels like it gives me structure to everything else about the trip.)
Step 6: Buy Park Tickets and Make Park Pass Reservations
As soon as you make your hotel reservation, you’ll also want to buy your park tickets and make your Park Pass Reservations. (So while this is Step 6 here, really you should ideally do it conjunction with Step 5.)
There are a few things to consider when booking park tickets:
- Consider booking one less park day 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 spend 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. (Note: Currently, park hopping is available only after 2:00 p.m. You must go to your first park first, and then you can hop to a different park. Park hopping is also subject to park capacity.) 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 After Hours Events). The tickets might not be available yet, but put reminders on your calendar to check for availability as your trip gets closer.
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. You can book your passes in the My Disney Experience app or on the website.
This is also a great time to make sure your park tickets and reservations are also linked to your hotel reservation and dining plan.
Looking for more Disney Travel Tips? Check out our Guide to Disney World Rides by Age.
Step 7: Arrange Airfare and Transportation
If you are planning to fly to Orlando, we recommend you begin tracking airline prices as soon as possible.
There are a couple of options to get from the airport to Disney World. If you were used to taking the Magical Express, you may be surprised to learn it is no longer a complementary option. Instead you can take MEARS Connect. Note that it does come at an additional cost (there really is no free way to get to Disney anymore) and you have to get your own bags at baggage claim.
Another option is of course to take an Uber/Lyft/Taxi. Just know your plan before you arrive.
Step 8: Make Dining Reservations
At 60 days out 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 5:45 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. (We did exactly this during our pre-Thanksgiving 2021 trip and still ate some fantastic food.)
At this point, you should also be able to book some special events, like parties, if you haven’t already. Also make sure you have strollers, PhotoPass, or anything else you want to add to your park experience reserved.
Step 9: Make Your Disney World Final Itinerary
Now it’s time to decide whether or not you want to use Genie+ on your trip. (Unsure what Genie+ is? Check out our Genie+ guide here.) Basically purchasing Genie+ enables you to book Lightning Lanes. These let you access a separate line that is much shorter than the standby line. Genie+ is $15 per day per ticket.
Once you decide whether or not you want to book Genie+, you can outline a more general itinerary, thinking about what rides you want to get Genie+ for or what rides you might want to purchase Individual Lightning Lanes for.
Remember, there is no wrong way to do Disney here. You might want to completely wing it. You might to write a list of the rides you want to do in what order (just remember to be flexible!).
Personally, I love to go with a well thought out plan, knowing what group of rides we are doing in what order, while still being flexible if something takes longer or if we don’t get the Genie+ reservation we want. 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. (If you are close to the front of the rope drop crowd, go for the MOST popular ride. If you are further back, go for a mid-tier popular ride. There are a lot of reasons for this, but mostly you don’t want to waste valuable morning ride time just standing in line for one ride. Unless you absolutely HAVE to do that ride and don’t think you’ll be able to later.)
- If you are using Genie+, I like to try to book my first ride as soon as possible in the morning. I do a ride or two at rope drop, and then go to my Lightning Lane reservation. This enables me to book the next Lightning Lane sooner.
- 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.
- Don’t forget to include nighttime entertainment in your plan! The fireworks shows are worth seeing!
And that’s it! Nine simple (ha!) steps for how to plan a trip to Disney World. 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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Need more planning help? We have complete guides to all the parks!