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.