I am often asked about planning a Walt Disney World vacation—from a variety of sources. Everyone wants to know the best tactics for making their vacation magical and memorable. There are several things you should keep in mind as you begin planning your vacation—here are nine tips:
9. Start Early!
I can’t emphasize this enough. As soon as you can nail down dates for your family to travel you should start the planning process and make your reservation. Disney allows you to put down a $200 deposit on a Magic Your Way Package (with the balance due 45 days before you check in), so you can start the process with a small investment. Starting as early as possible will help the other 8 tips fall into place a lot easier, and it will give you the best chance of crafting exactly the vacation you want for your family as far as hotel availability, dining reservations, FastPass+ arrangements, and so much more. I recommend to my clients that you have a package reservation in place 7+ months before you travel if at all possible for optimum planning.
8. Consult a Travel Agent/Planner or Be Prepared for A lot of Research
There is so much you need to know when you are planning your perfect Walt Disney World vacation—from which resort to pick to whether the dining plan is right for you to restaurant recommendations to how in the world do I schedule a FastPass+. Not to mention the fact that Disney is constantly changing the way things work once you arrive on vacation. I always recommend consulting with a Travel Agent who specializes in Disney vacations. All Travel Planners are not created equal, so you will want to do a little research on their Disney training, personal Walt Disney World travel experience, and level of Walt Disney World knowledge to select the right Planner for your family. If you find the right one he or she can save you hours of time and really help you make the most of your Disney vacation dollars. Some people prefer to plan everything on their own—and that is okay too. If you are one of these people I would recommend that you start subscribing to Disney websites (like this one), join some message boards, look for some Facebook Disney planning groups, and even buy a good old fashioned Guidebook (I like the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World). Researching your vacation thoroughly through these resources will pay off in the end.
7. Make your Dining Reservations as soon as you can
Back to #1. Dining reservations open 180 days in advance (yes, that is 6 months). Although I often have a hard time figuring out what to have for dinner at night before 3:00 in the afternoon, it is to your advantage to know which restaurants are on your must-do list 180 days out. Many of the most popular restaurants can fill up as soon as reservations open, and for others ideal dining times can vanish quickly. If you have your plan in place in time you can take advantage of the early booking date. Also, if you are an on-site guest you can make reservations for up to 10 days past your check-in date at that 180 day mark, so that is even more of an advantage to score those hard to get tables.
6. Check a crowd calendar
There are two reasons to look at a crowd calendar. Number 1 is to decide the best time for your family to go if your dates are flexible. With a high school student I am now locked in to school breaks, but we had more flexibility when he was younger, so we could look at the less crowded times like September and late January. Along with the crowds, you should consider weather and special events when picking the optimal dates for your family’s trip. The second reason is to pick the best days for each park during your trip. Several sites give you a rating of which park out of the four should be the least crowded for a given day—this will help you plan where you want to be each day of your trip. And it is great to have this in mind before you make your dining reservations so you can coordinate where you will be. Two sites that I like for their crowd calendars are WDW Prep School (http://wdwprepschool.com/) and Touring Plans (http://touringplans.com/). WDW Prep School is a free site, Touring Plans requires a membership for premium features. If you are working with a Travel Planner many of them will do this for you and make recommendations (along with working out an itinerary and making dining reservations for you).
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5. Look at the Value of the Resort you choose vs. the Cost
This is something I always emphasize with clients—try to look at the description, location and amenities of the resort before you look at the bottom line price. I know everyone has some budget, but sometimes it is worth paying a few hundred dollars more to get a resort with a larger room, or a better location, or a pool that your kids will love. Or, on the other hand, it may be worth saving a few hundred dollars in order to attend an evening party event rather than upgrading your resort. Each individual family is very different on this, so it is good to really look at all of your options. I feel like this is one area where an experienced Travel Planner can really give good advice—especially if they have personally experienced most of the resorts.
4. Schedule your FastPass+
Yes, the My Disney Experience system can be confusing, but it is very important to schedule your FastPass+ arrangements as soon as you are able (60 days prior to your check-in for on-site guests, 30 days prior to each day for off-site guests) in order to get your must-do attractions. Not everything fills up at midnight at 60 days, but a few popular attractions do. But, don’t give up and don’t lose hope. If you weren’t able to get an attraction you really wanted, keep trying. People make changes and cancel things. This is true for dining reservations too.
3. Get Everyone Onboard
I love a surprise trip as much as the next guy, but I think it is also important to get everyone in your family “onboard” for the planning. Sit down with them to find out which attractions, restaurants and activities are most important to them. Order one of the planning DVDs or get a guidebook (there are some great ones just for kids) so they can tell you where they want to go and what they want to do. I had one client who thought her kids would only want to go to Magic Kingdom until they watched the planning DVD—then all 4 parks were on the must-do list. Or, you might find out that having a day at the resort just to swim is important to your child. Maybe your spouse wants to plan a special dinner. The more input everyone has on the front end the happier they will be with the outcome. Also make sure that everyone knows that it is a family trip, so each person gets to do something they want (even if their sibling doesn’t like it).
2. Start Saving & Budgeting
I think the first step for #8 is to set a budget. What are you comfortable spending for your vacation including the resort, tickets, food, souvenirs and travel. Then decide where you might have some room to move funds around—say less souvenirs in lieu of a resort upgrade, etc. Then the saving begins. You could put aside a little from every paycheck into a Disney Vacation savings account. Maybe you have a yard sale where everyone contributes some things they are ready to part with for building the vacation fund. Take some clothes to a consignment shop. Shop at a consignment shop instead of retail. Cut out a Starbucks visit each week. There are a lot of things you can do to build your vacation savings.
1. Plan a Day Off
This one is hard to convince people to do since they want to make the most of the parks while they are there. But, there is a lot of walking, a lot of early mornings and late nights, and a lot of excitement each day in the parks—and it can wear you out. If you are exhausted you are not having very much fun. So, take a day to enjoy your resort—swim, rest, rent a boat or bike, just relax. If you are at a Disney resort you will hardly miss the parks with all of the fun things to do. Plus, you are paying to stay at this great resort—you should take time to enjoy it too!
Those are 9 of my best tips for planning a Walt Disney World vacation. Do you have a tip to share with someone in the planning stages?