Planning an organized Walt Disney World vacation

The following is the first of three in a series on organizing a vacation to Walt Disney World. You may find some of the tips can be applied to other vacation destinations. And, just to be clear, Disney didn’t pay for anything nor are they giving us anything for this series. This is just seasoned advice from one organized family that makes yearly trips to WDW.

It wasn’t until I was engaged that I learned I would be marrying into a Disney family. For people like me who were not raised in Disney families, I didn’t get the draw and hoopla. Why spend money going to visit the same place each year? Why would an adult have any desire to hang out at a really big theme park with a plush rodent? Aren’t I supposed to be upset with Disney for some political reason?

Then, our honeymoon plans were thwarted because of the September 11 tragedy, and my husband switched our destination to WDW at the last minute. After 10 days of swimming with dolphins in the Living Seas, playing golf on some amazing courses, spending a day at the spa, and eating my way through the countries in World Showcase, I started to see how Disney was more than large crowds and standing in lines. By my third visit, I realized I was part of a Disney family and I was okay with it. In fact, when we learned my son has a deadly food allergy, WDW became my favorite place to travel with him because of the incredible service he receives at mealtimes — a chef comes to your table or your place in line at every meal to talk to you about safe menu options. And, the chefs know exactly what is in their food and how items from outside their kitchens are processed.

I’ll admit, WDW isn’t for everyone. But, for those people who enjoy heading there or hope to head there one day, I can likely help you to plan an organized WDW vacation. Now that I’ve been going there for more than a decade, I’ve learned some valuable lessons beyond what you will find in travel guides. And, speaking of travel guides …

Buy a good Walt Disney World travel guide

There is no way in three posts I can give you all the advice you’ll want for your vacation. So, arm yourself with a book — a paperback book you can write in and throw in your luggage — and make sure it’s the most recent edition. Then, read this book from cover-to-cover. My favorite are The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World and The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids. If you won’t be traveling with kids, get the first one. If you’ll be traveling with kids, get the second. There is no need to get both.

Use these books to help you set a budget, choose a hotel (or two or three, seeing as if you want to stay on property you may not get your first choice), and pick what type of park ticket you want to purchase. Use the books as an introduction to the parks and try not to become overwhelmed. In a perfect world, you get this book and read it 10-12 months before you expect to travel.

Make your table dining and hotel reservations 180 days or more in advance

It didn’t used to be this way, but now if you want to get the dining and lodging you most desire, you’ll need to make these reservations six months in advance. Not all places are in such high demand that this is necessary, but a good chunk of them are. For instance, to eat at Cinderella’s Royal Table in Cinderella Castle at the time you want and on the day you want, it’s only going to happen (at least for us common, non-celebrity folks) if you call Disney Dining half a year ahead of time. If you want to stay in a resort on the Magic Kingdom monorail line, six months might be cutting it close. Restaurants like Le Cellier in Epcot’s Canada Pavilion rarely have tables available without reservations, even during times when crowds are smaller in the parks.

Personally, I recommend having just one table service reservation per day. There are numerous counter service locations throughout the parks that are decent and will save you money on food while you’re at WDW. And, if you’re not staying on property, the restaurants outside the parks are almost always less expensive. If you want a romantic dinner in a park or resort without kids everywhere, make a reservation for a time after 8:30 p.m. or drop a ridiculous amount of cash for Victoria and Alberts (it’s not really a kid place, though I’m sure some older ones have eaten there at some point).

Make your travel reservations

After setting your dining and lodging plans, take care of your travel accommodations. If you’re flying into Orlando and staying in a Disney resort, be sure to make a reservation with Disney’s Magical Express so you can get free transportation to your hotel. If you’re driving, learn now about parking and how much it will cost you and be sure to budget this amount. My rule is if we’re staying on property, there is no reason to rent a car. Taking a cab the few times we want to go off property is always less expensive than renting a car while we’re there.

Make a very detailed plan

Now is the time to let your organizing side take control. Make a spreadsheet! Draw a graph or table! Make a ridiculous plan that will likely scare normal humans.

The philosophy here is to do all the planning work before the vacation, and then just sit back and let the vacation happen. I don’t like to be stressed while on any vacation, and if you’re not prepared, it can be easy to be a ball of anxiety and frustration while at WDW. (Detailed planning also avoids a lot of kid tears and hangry adults.) And, except for dining reservation times, everything else on my schedule (linked below) is flexible.

The following is a sample spreadsheet of what a week-long vacation to WDW might look like for a family with preschoolers, parents, and grandparents in the same group. This assumes staying on property, and I’ve used the Wilderness Lodge as the example. You’ll notice the last two days are relatively free, and this is so we can return to parks we feel we didn’t get to experience as much as we would have liked. These open dates are great for playing golf or other non-traditional activities or the water parks if you don’t have young kids in your group:

Sample Week-long Walt Disney World Vacation Plan (in Excel)

Get to the parks early

When making your schedule, plan to be at the park entrance when the gates open for the day. Surprisingly, it makes a huge difference in what you are able to see and do in a single day. You can usually get four or five rides in that first hour if you get there early — your party also isn’t exhausted and it’s not evil hot yet. Our plan of action is for one member of our party to take our park passes and get Fast Passes for the most popular attraction we want to visit in that park (in Hollywood Studios, it is always Toy Story Mania) while everyone else lines up for another ride. Then, the Fast Pass ticket getter comes and joins us in the standby line. At Magic Kingdom this year, we rode Dumbo, Goofy’s Barnstormer (twice), Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan, Mad Hatter’s tea cups, and Tomorrowland Speedway in the first hour.

Also, be aware that park hours are different for WDW resort guests than for other patrons. (Parks open earlier and stay open later some days, in Disney-speak they are called “Extra Magic Hours.”) When you check into your resort, the front desk will give you a schedule of all the hours for the week you are visiting.

Take a break

During summer months, it is common for it to rain almost every afternoon in Orlando. The shower is brief, but you’ll still get wet if you’re in the parks. I don’t love being soggy, so about five years ago I suggested we go back to the hotel each day after lunch and then head back to a park in the evening. These breaks almost always include a short nap and on days it doesn’t rain they also include a dip in the pool. It’s surprising how much better of a mood everyone in your group is in when they have this break. If you’re only at WDW for the weekend, you probably won’t want to take a break. But, if you’re going for more than a few days, I cannot recommend the break enough.

22 Comments for “Planning an organized Walt Disney World vacation”

  1. posted by Mark on

    Great recommendations on the guidebooks, but you may have missed the very best part of those books and that is the suggested itineraries in the back! We seem to be on an every-other-year schedule for our WDW vacations and always get the “with kids” version of the book anew for each time we go.

    The itineraries listed in the back are excellent schedules for what rides to do first and which to wait on. When to get the fast pass for a ride and when to just deal with the line. On our last visit there we walked past Pirates of the Caribbean ride twice because the guide said to wait. When we got to it later in the afternoon we practically walked right on with no line at all.

    That’s just one example, but we’ve had plenty of experiences like that using the printed schedules.

    The same publisher/author offers a subscription-based smartphone app that lets you track line wait times and crowd levels. We found it to be useful but not essential.

    Finally, I always remember what I read in a travel magazine before our first trip. “They” surveyed a bunch of kids and asked them what they enjoyed most about their vacations. The results, in order:

    1. Swimming in the hotel pool
    2. Eating out at restaurants
    3. Visiting the theme parks
    4. Sleeping in the hotel

    So take some time off! If you’re doing multiple parks over multiple days it’s best to have a resting day (swimming in the hotel pool) between intense theme-park filled days.

    We’ll be back in 2014.


  2. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Mark — I’ve never used their plans since we’ve been so many times and everyone in the group has their favorite “must-do” rides (see the last page of the Excel spreadsheet in the post for our family’s list). The ones in the Unofficial Guide look really great if it’s your first trip to Disney, though. Maybe one of these times we can try to do them. Good to hear you had luck with them. I’ve always been curious …

  3. posted by Jo on

    I went to WDW with each of my nephews when ages 4 1/2 and 7 (one at a time). I learned quickly that a standard hotel room wasn’t good — he needed to go to sleep at 8 and I didn’t. So I booked a suite hotel (Residence Inn but any would do) with a separate bedroom. It was always great — not just for the early bedtime, but for the second TV, a place to eat a quick breakfast, etc.

    I know staying in the park is convenient, but at the time they didn’t have that option, and staying nearby wasn’t a hardship at all. It also encouraged us to go to the two Universal Parks and SeaWorld, which also were great.

    Just my thoughts….

  4. posted by Jeanette on

    Good advice and tips (they echo what those we know who have mastered these trips have shared with us). The thing is, to truly get the most out of the time and budget you have for Disney vacations, you really have to preplan AND you have to be incredibly flexible once you are there. (And then there are the crowds. As our friends told us “Think Times Square on a holiday weekend with tourists!” Ugh. NOT for us.)

    To us, it’s way way too much work for something we’ve never seen an inherent value in undertaking. We truly get that others do.

    Also, cost is a huge issue, even if you can afford it. We’ve had friends and neighbors who shared what they have spent on these jaunts and it is truly appaling. We could stay a month or more in Europe (or elsewhere) at high-star hotels and dine at luxe eateries for less!

    I guess people place experience over value in picking Disney.

    And, yes, we have issues with Disney corporate. But that’s the least of it.

    Also, what concerns me is all the families who keep going back rather than traveling elsewhere in the U.S. or around the globe. (It’s like people who go to Vegas and think they’ve been to Venice or NYC or Egypt based on visiting area hotels, etc. with that theme!) It’s escapism and I suppose it has its place, but not as a permanent replacement for real travel.

  5. posted by Stephanie on

    Love the Guide – love the website even better ( A subscription to the site gets you access to most of the same planning info as the book, but you also can make customized plans for only the rides your family wants to do, and get access to the wait times app, WDW Lines.

  6. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Jeanette — It’s not cheap, I will agree with that. But, it’s far less than going to Europe if you plan it well. For example, we bought Disney time share points on the secondary market and paid half of what DVC was asking. So, in fewer than two trips we were already saving a significant amount of money on annual lodging. We go every year, but we space the trips so two trips fall in the same 12-month window so we get annual passes and save a thousand on park tickets. As annual ticket holders, we are then eligible for the Tables in Wonderland discount card, which saves us hundreds of dollars each trip on food. I’ll talk more about what we do to save money in the third post in the series … but, in short, the more research and planning you do ahead of time the lower the cost of the trip.

    Also, going to Disney is “real travel.” I’d contend it’s not “cultural” travel, but it is real. Someone else cooks all your meals, washes your sheets and towels, takes away your trash, brings you drinks with umbrellas … all things that qualify as vacation for me 🙂 However, I totally agree with you that it’s important to see the rest of the world, too. We travel internationally every-other year and domestically three or four times a year (not counting going to visit family). It’s not an either-or thing for us. I liken WDW to a beach or skiing vacation — you’re going to do something, as a hobby, not to learn about a culture different than your own.

    And, for a family with a kid with a deadly food allergy and me with a disability, there is so much less stress at WDW for us than with international travel. If I trip and fall, I know within seconds I’ll receive quality medical care, and I also don’t have to learn a new language or hire a language guide to travel with us (which we do when we travel overseas) to make sure all the food my son eats is 100% free of allergens. It’s nice to be able to turn my brain off and not worry about these things … which also makes it a vacation for me 🙂

    But, like I said earlier, I completely understand people who aren’t Disney people. It’s like people who get manicures … I’m not one, but I can see how someone might enjoy having their nails done.

  7. posted by J on

    I also recommend the Touring Plans in the Unofficial Guide. They are very savvy about what gets crowded early, what is crowded later, etc.

    Also, on their website, they list the Extra Magic Hours about a month out. SO, you can plan which days at which parks even before you leave! We 100% took advantage of the Extra Magic Hours when we went to Disney before Xmas. We really had NO significant waits in line on our whole trip!

  8. posted by henave on

    I have found that a website run by WDW fans to be very helpful: It is great to read tips and reviews that are constantly being updated into organized categories with lots of pictures. There are tips on everything including special dining needs, navigating the parks if you are plus-sized, managing the parks with special needs kids (mine have autism), etc. I am scared of heights and sudden drops, so I needed the complete break down of the rides! Also needed to see the detailed pictures of the accommodations on and off site to make a decision. They do a weekly newsletter that lists rehabs and closings too- Space Mtn was closed one year when we went and I was able to alert everyone months in advance.

  9. posted by michele on

    There’s a lot of really good and useful Disney apps also. They usually contain maps, ride wait times, and come in handy for making restaurant reservations, etc.

  10. posted by SAHMama on

    Disney sounds like the most cluttered and un-minimal place I can think of besides a third world urban slum.

    I’d rather save my money and max out my and my husband’s Roth IRAs and take a nearby vacation to a more affordable amusement park instead.

    Disney is a commercialized ripoff.

  11. posted by Mark Harrison on

    I’m not sure whether this applies to WDW, but it certainly works at Chessington WOA (one of the UK’s major theme parks.)

    If you don’t want to plan, there’s a simple “hack” to get a great start to your day:

    Arrive as soon as the gates open and IGNORE all the rides close to the gates. Instead, head for the rides furthest from the gates and start there. Most people get onto first interesting ride they come to, so those queues are huge.

    In Chessington WOA terms, we went on the Saturday of the half term holiday in June, and went to TombBlaster straight away. No queue, went obit a second time straight way, also no queue…. At 2pm we wanted another go, 45 minute queue…

  12. posted by Emily on

    Go someplace real people!

  13. posted by kathny on

    There are also smartphone apps that are really useful to have on your trip. Disney has one called Disney Parks, where you can choose between Disney World and Disneyland and which will give you the hours, events, park maps, where specific characters will be that day, a restaurant guide where you can even make reservations, and an attractions list that will give you the wait times for every ride and attraction. This app proved to be extremely valuable to us the last time we were there. Universal Studios also has an app for those people who would like to hit both places while they’re in FL

  14. posted by romney on

    Ugh! I can’t think of a worse vacation. Booking food six months in advance and having to plan ways to queue jump isn’t my idea of a good time. The thought of having spent such an astonishing amount for so little that its possible to save “a thousand on park tickets” or “hundreds of dollars each trip on food” is shocking in itself. I can only imagine what the whole thing costs if thats what you’ve “saved”.

    Visiting the theme park only comes 3rd in the list for the children. Why not concentrate on the stuff they enjoy most and not build them up to be little consumers? This place is just a gigantic shopping mall where they try to screw as much money out of you as they can, and train your children to continue the habit. A “Disney family” tradition indeed.

  15. posted by Laurene on

    We are a Disney family, and as a professional organizer I have to admit I totally enjoy the pre-planning. This year we used the, and their lines app – pay close attention to the estimated crowd levels, and juggle your schedule to visit the parks on the days with the lowest crowds. If at all possible, travel at off-peak times to really see a lot and get your money’s worth. We’ve stayed both on and off site – on-site extends your Disney experience, and makes travel to the parks very easy. My top two pieces of advice – plan ahead, and wear comfy shoes!

  16. posted by Laurene on

    And for the Disney haters – sure, it’s a certain kind of vacation, and we still love our national parks, road trips and international destinations travel, but there is something wonderful about suspending your disbelief and living in a make-believe world for a while. If you don’t appreciate it, don’t go, and leave it a bit less crowded for those of us who do!

  17. posted by Rebecca on

    Great review for newbies… But do consider updating it once the RFID becomes live. Staying onsite will be so much more valuable then. As well, getting to the park early wont be such a big deal as you will be able to reserve ride times at any point in the day.

  18. posted by HelenH on

    I clicked your spreadsheet with trepidation, but it was marvelous! Just the right amount of info (1 page), easy to refer to. I got some good ideas, especially to plan for that late afternoon slump. And BTW, we don’t do Disney, but I enjoy reading Disney tips – it’s an organizer’s dream.

  19. posted by DawnF on

    We took our son to WDW for his 8th birthday. We had the most amazing time and part of the fun was planning. He was very involved in discussing parks, resorts, places to eat, activities, etc. We talked about expenses and made a budget our family felt comfortable with. We started planning about 5 months in advance ~ reading online, looking through our travel guide and watching the free DVD we ordered through Disney.

    We made sure to prepare an itinerary for each day so that we were able to do our Must Do’s without missing the things we felt were most important (certain rides, certain parades, etc.). We also had free time each day ~ in case we wanted to go back to repeat an extra fun activity or just chill by the pool or hang out in the arcade.

    I think one thing that made our trip so successful was waiting until my son was at an age where he could tolerate long days and long walks. He was out of the napping stage. He was also old enough to really discuss the whole trip and be part of the planning process and understand the reason for a budget, etc. I know each family is different, but waiting for this age seemed to make the experience so much more happy and comfortable for our family.

    Also, to all of the Disney Haters ~ you don’t have to be sucked into the consumerism and buying traps. Like anything in life (and on vacations), if you choose your favorite and most cherished activities, plan accordingly and be loyal to your budget, you can have a wonderful family experience.

    BTW, the second week in November was such an awesome time to go IMO. All of the gorgeous Christmas decorations were up, the weather was cool and most of the time we experienced extremely short lines (and in some cases no line at all) and minimal crowds.

  20. posted by Anne Stockwell on

    I would love to go to WDW sometime. It sounds like a blast. My husband and I have a very different vacation tradition that I would like to share: We throw our camping gear and clothes in the back of his car, sit in the driveway, and flip a coin. Heads=north, tails= east (west would put us in the ocean an south would put us in Mexico, love Mexico bit not for this trip). Then we just start! The only preparation allowed is to do our laundry and pack, and check on our camping gearfirst .Sometimes we stay in motels, too. We have a nice airbed that fits in our tent, which makes camping much more pleasurable for arthritic me. We have been some great places, that I would never in a millipn years have thought of including in a planned vacation. And it’s cheap too! Hint: State parks are often very nice, reasonable, and also often have showers.

  21. posted by Maria on

    We are Disney Addicts, going from PA to FL at least once a year.
    We do not fly… we utilize a different form of transport, the Amtrak Auto TRain.

    It is a lot of fun to travel by train, get to take in the countryside seeing views you wouldn’t normally see driving down I-95. The kids can get up and walk around, not be stuck in their car seats for hours on end.

    It’s a great option that many people have not heard of. And the earlier you book it, the cheaper the prices, so we are usually planning our vacation 11 months out to take advantage of good rates.

  22. posted by Blue11759 on

    This is a book with lots of money saving tips for trips to Disney World:

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