Walt Disney World vacations can be stressful to plan. They are expensive and are often a dream trip for families. There are also so many different things to see, and it’s pretty much impossible to see everything during one trip. Prioritizing is essential.
Walt Disney World vacation planning is also difficult. You’ll need to think about many things in advance, and planning a last-minute trip is tough. If you are thinking of taking a trip to WDW, here’s how to plan a Disney World vacation, step by step.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. Purchasing and/or clicking on one of these links may result in a small commission paid to us. I am a former member of the planDisney panel and have been on some complimentary press trips at Walt Disney World, but all opinions are my own.
Save money on your Walt Disney World theme park tickets by booking through Get Away Today. They offer vacation packages as well as individual ticket sales. Disney travel agents don’t charge guests an extra commission and can help you find deals.
How to Plan a Disney World Vacation
Start With Dates
The first thing you should do before booking your Walt Disney World vacation is to look at the calendar and decide on your vacation dates. There are several factors you should consider.
First, if you have children, you may need to stick with school vacations for your vacation. Those, however, can be some of the busiest and most expensive times to travel (especially spring break and Christmas break). So, if you have the option, you should definitely consider traveling when kids are in school to avoid peak times.
You may also want to consider the weather. While the summer months may be the most convenient time to visit, the weather can be very hot. I usually prefer to travel in the spring or the fall.
Depending on the ages of your children (or if you are traveling with an adult-only group), you may also want to consider special events taking place at the parks. I especially love visiting during the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, which typically takes place from late summer through the fall.
Establish Your Budget
It’s never fun to think about money, but it’s important to establish your budget before planning your vacation. Think about how much you’d like to spend on your trip. Depending on your budget, you may have to save a bit. Otherwise, you still may be able to save some money by limiting the number of days of your trip or by staying at a less expensive hotel.
Be sure to include all of the costs of your vacation. Add in flights, parking/rental car/ride-share, park tickets (plus add-ons like Genie+ or the park hopper option), meals, snacks, and hotel. In addition, you should also include expenses at home, like parking at your home airport, and pet care.
To get the costs of your trip, just do a high-level search on your dates. You can even find sample menus online to get an idea of restaurant prices. Once you are ready to book, you can finalize the costs and your budget.
At the Walt Disney World resort, you will have many different hotel options, including on-property and off-property resorts. Within the on-property Disney resorts, there are deluxe, moderate, and value resorts, all with a variety of themes.
There are pros and cons to staying on property. You’ll be able to get an early theme park entry (30 minutes before general opening) if you are staying at the Disney resorts, as well as select other hotels. You can see the full list on this website. This early theme park entry replaces the old system, which was called Extra Magic Hours.
The Disney resorts also offer some fantastic themes, and all have the same great service you’d expect from the Walt Disney Company.
You may find, however, that you can get more affordable hotel rooms by staying off property. There are loads of chain hotels off property, many offering family suites and other rooms with more space. Keep in mind that if you stay off property, you’ll most likely have to rent a car, which can add to the expense.
In the past, there were some other benefits to staying on property, but these have gone away. The Disney Dining Plan, for instance, was exclusively available to guests staying on property. However, it hasn’t yet returned to the parks.
If you decide to stay at a Disney Resort, you’ll have many options. First, based on your budget, decide whether you want to stay in a deluxe, moderate, or value resort. There are plenty of options in each category. Then, you can look at the various locations to see if one appeals to you more than the others. Theme is also a big consideration.
Purchase Your Tickets and Reserve Your Hotel
Now that you’ve done your research and have your budget, it’s time to book your vacation. Before spending any money, however, I recommend checking the flights for your vacation dates. Flight prices have been notoriously high recently, so don’t commit to a trip until you know how much it will cost to fly. Switching dates, even by one or two days, can sometimes help you save money.
After doing this, you are all set to book. If it’s your first time planning a Disney World vacation, using a travel agent, like our affiliate partner Get Away Today, can be a good idea. You’ll want to figure out how many days you want park tickets for, and if you want to add on any of the extras, like the Disney water parks, or the park hopping option.
Base tickets can be purchased for the number of days that you want to visit the parks. Those will allow you to enter one theme park (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Disney’s Hollywood Studios) per day. Park Hopper tickets, which are offered at an extra cost, let you visit other parks after 2 pm.
I generally recommend adding the park hopper if it’s in your budget. It will give you a lot more flexibility when trying to experience as many attractions as possible, as well as with your dining options. The park hopper does have to be added to your entire park ticket purchase – you can’t choose to just purchase that option for one day.
Keep in mind that Disney Springs doesn’t require tickets to just walk around, shop, and visit restaurants. So, it’s always a nice option if you want to have one day without park tickets.
You may need to rent a car, especially if you are staying off property. However, if you are staying at a Disney hotel, you just need to get from the Orlando International Airport to the hotel. Then, you can take Disney transportation to the theme parks, water parks, and Disney Springs.
Walt Disney World now requires that you have a park reservation in order to enter the parks. I strongly recommend that you look at the availability calendar before purchasing tickets, especially if your trip is last minute. Even if you have paid tickets, you won’t be able to enter a park without a reservation. Dining reservations also don’t give you guaranteed admission – you need those theme park reservations.
If you have the park hopper option, you’ll be able to enter a second park after 2 pm. You will still need to make a reservation for that first park and actually enter that park before hopping to another theme park.
Remember that this park reservation system was established after the park reopening, and is subject to change at any time.
Walt Disney World offers two main dining types – table-service restaurants and quick-service restaurants. At a table service restaurant, you’ll be seated and a server will take and bring your order. Quick service restaurants are counter service – place your order at a counter and find your own seat.
The table service restaurants take reservations, and it’s a good idea to book them when they are available to reserve. Right now, you can book them 60 days in advance. You will need to have both valid park admission and a park reservation (or a park hopper for reservations after 2pm) in order to dine at a theme park restaurant.
It can be difficult to think about what parks you’ll want to be in on which days. But, the most popular restaurants, especially character meals, do require reservations. So you’ll want to spend some time plotting out your trip so you are able to make the dining reservations.
Look at Attractions To Decide Your Must-Dos
In the past, FastPass reservations could be made in advance. With the introduction of the new Disney Genie, you won’t have to do as much work in advance.
You can learn much more on this Disney Genie post. In general, there are two systems – the standard Disney Genie and the paid Disney Genie+ (which works on the most popular rides). Regardless of which system you use, you’ll want to do a little research in advance on your must-do attractions.
If you are traveling with small children, you’ll also want to look at the height restrictions. That way, you’ll avoid disappointment when you arrive at the parks.
Traveling with older kids? It’s always a good idea to involve them in the planning process so they feel some ownership over the trip.
The free Disney Genie can be used with the My Disney Experience app. You can select which attractions, character experiences, and shows you want to see. Then, the Genie will give you a plan for your day, minimizing waiting in long lines and telling you the best time to experience an attraction.
Purchase Theme Park Supplies
Before you go, make sure you purchase any of the items you’ll need before your trip. Complimentary MagicBands are no longer provided and are optional. But they do make your Disney vacation easier, especially if you are staying at a Disney resort hotel and have charging privileges to your hotel room.
The new MagicBand+ band is now available and offers even more functionality. You can purchase them at the resort, or buy them in advance on shopDisney. It can be easiest to get them in advance, that way you can link them to your account before you leave.
When it was first introduced, Genie+ could be added on to a park ticket purchase. However, that has changed in recent months. Now, it has to be purchased individually, starting at midnight each day of your trip. You can make your first selection at 7 am, so it’s a good idea to make sure you purchase it before then.
Currently, Genie+ is $15 per person, per day. It can add up, especially if you also purchase the added Individual Lightning Lanes. So be sure to include it in your budget if you decide to purchase them.