Planning a vacation can be an overwhelming task. Planning a Walt Disney World vacation, especially, can seem almost insurmountable for those new to the destination. This is being written to provide you a guide for navigating the nearly infinite options available to you. For the purposes of this article, we’ll be focused on Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fl. Disney has theme park options around the world in addition to an award-winning cruise line and guided tours call Adventures by Disney.
First, let’s appreciate the size of Walt Disney World (WDW). The properties cover 47 sq. miles of area. This is roughly the size of San Francisco and twice the size of Manhattan! There are more than 25 unique resort hotels with over 30,000 hotel rooms, 409 wilderness cabins, and 799 campsites on the property! There are over 300 dining locations spread throughout the property ranging from James Beard’s award-winning and Michelin star-rated chef’s restaurants to popcorn and ice cream carts. On an average day, 250,000 guests travel around the property using the 400+ buses, 12 monorail trains, water taxis and boats, and the new Skyliner gondola system. Since its opening in 1971, the monorail trains have registered enough miles to make over 30 roundtrips to the moon!
One of the big things that we cannot emphasize enough is how complicated Walt Disney World can be and how much preparation is necessary. Many first-timers don’t realize Walt Disney World is so complex until they arrive. Advertisements make it look like a carefree world where everyone skips around, holding hands with Mickey Mouse and walking onto rides. That’s not the reality. You need to plan. There is a ton to know before you visit Walt Disney World. The payoff is worth it.
No fear though, that’s what we’re here for! Let us help guide you through the process of selecting the exciting attractions, spectacular resorts, and delicious dining options that will make your trip just magical!
It’s Never Too Early To Starting Planning Your Disney Trip
As soon as you think you want to go to WDW, start your research. You’re reading this article, so in my biased opinion, you’re off to a perfect start! Review our rough timeline here. It will give you an overarching idea of what is ahead of you. We want to formulate at least a rough itinerary. Think about what you want this trip to “be”. Are you looking for a “once in a lifetime, do as much as you can” trip? Or, a shorter “go sample what there is to offer and then come back and focus on your interests” trip? There are a million ways to go about visiting Disney World and they are all correct.
With that said, we recommend starting your planning at least 190 days (6.5 months) out. Why so far in advance? This provides you the opportunity to take advantage of the Advanced Dining Reservations (ADR) window and will provide a greater variety of resort options. This is not a hard and fast rule though. You can absolutely go and enjoy yourself with a shorter planning window. You may just find it difficult to get some of the more sought after ADRs or find that your top resort choice has no availability.
No matter your amount of experience traveling to Disney World, one of our travel advisors can greatly reduce your effort in the process and help you make a customized Disney vacation a reality. Plus, our services are completely free of charge!
General Information for Disney World Planning
Before we go any further, let’s review some terms so we are talking about the same things. Here are a series of terms, acronyms, and abbreviations that you’ll want to know before going. This will help with the planning and likely while on your vacation as well.
At the minimum, this is your hotel. Really, they are so much more than just a room to sleep in. All of them, from the value to moderate to deluxe resorts all offer Disney theming and amenities not found anywhere else! No matter where you choose to stay, you’ll find dining, shopping, recreation, and entertainment options there. This choice to stay “on property” or “off property” will also impact other aspects of your planning. The most significant being when you may make Fastpass+ reservations. You’ll also find this playing into your planning for getting to and from the parks each day.
My Disney Experience (MDE)
The My Disney Experience website and the My Disney Experience app will play major roles in your trip. You’ll use the website and app to form your travel party and make your ADR and Fastpass+ reservations. During your trip, you’ll be able to track your itineraries and access your Disney PhotoPass pictures. It also serves as a resource in the parks giving you a map (including indicating where you are), current wait times, menus, and the ability to preorder food at some restaurants!
MagicBands are secure all-in-one devices that allow you to effortlessly access the plans and vacation choices that you’ve made with MDE. They are colorful, customizable, and waterproof wristbands that you can quickly and easily touch to a sensor called a touchpoint.
You can use your MagicBand to:
- Unlock the door of your Disney Resort hotel room.
- Enter theme and water parks (with valid admission).
- Check-in at FastPass+ entrances.
- Connect Disney PhotoPass images to your account.
- Charge food and merchandise purchases to your Disney Resort hotel room (only available during your hotel stay).
A MagicBand can also:
- Add a touch of magic to your vacation by unlocking special surprises, personalized just for you, throughout the Walt Disney World Resort!
Extra Magic Hours (EMH)
Each day, guests staying at select Walt Disney World Resort hotels can enjoy select attractions in at least one of the 4 theme parks, before or after regular operating hours. This is one of the perks of being “on property” at WDW.
FastPass+ is a complimentary benefit extended to anyone with valid admission. Each Walt Disney World ticket holder receives three advanced FastPass+ selections for a single park (per day). This service allows you to reserve access to attractions of your choosing at a specific time, with a minimal wait. There are a limited number of FastPass+ allocations for each ride each day. We recommend you make your FastPass+ selections early in order to have a greater variety of options to choose from. Since all attractions and Character Greetings provide standby entrances, you’re also free to simply plan as you go. The number of slots are limited. Depending on availability, additional FastPass+ selections may be available to guests once their three initial selections have been used each day. Advanced FastPass+ reservations may be made up to 60 days in advance for on-site guests, and 30 days for off-site guests.
Advanced Dining Reservations (ADR)
Advanced Dining Reservations (ADRs) secure your party a table at some of Disney’s most popular restaurants. Guests can make ADRs at the 180-day mark of their check-in date, starting at 6 AM EST online and 7 AM over the phone and can book them for up to 10 days past their check-in date.
Disney World Planning Timeline
Now that you’re familiar with many of the terms we’ll be using, we’ll look at our Planning Timeline. Here is a listing of things to consider while planning your trip to Walt Disney World.
The Core Of Your Disney Trip
It is difficult to make any decision about an aspect of your Disney trip without affecting another. The core of your trip is going to set up, and possibly dictate, nearly all other components. That core is comprised of when you’re traveling, length of stay, and resort.
There isn’t a right or wrong place to start but we suggest starting with when. For many people, this is the least flexible part of their trip. When you travel will dictate what special events and festivals are taking place, crowds, and weather.
With when in mind we should also discuss the budget. While there is some variation in cost between seasons, the budget tends to be the largest factor for how long you decide to stay. Longer stays typically allow for a more relaxed experience and flexibility with attaining your ‘must-do’ ADRs or FP+.
The resort is important and can be greatly affected by your previous few decisions. Depending on the season, some resorts will be at a much higher demand because of location and proximity to special events. This is also where you’ll see the largest difference in price between seasons. Everyone has different priorities for their resort which we’ll happily walk you through. With over 25 resorts on property, there is one with just the right mix of amenities, location, and price for anyone.
No matter what your answers are to these questions, we can help you figure out the best options for you. Heyday Travel Advisors will keep you to date on refurbishment schedules, events and availabilities, and those pesky reservations dates.
Up to 499 Days Before Your Trip
That’s right, 499 days out! That is how far out you may make a room-only reservation. Very few people do this but it is an option. In our experience, most people start planning about a year ahead of time. Packages (room, ticket, and dining plan) can be booked approximately 270 days prior to arrival.
No need to fret about when offers are announced either. If you have a package already booked that would qualify for a newly announced offer, we can make that happen for you. Your advisor will be keeping track of this and will call Disney on your behalf to get the pricing applied to your reservation! How great is that? It really does become a set-it and forget-it vacation. Again, all included in that low low price of free!
One last item to consider. If you’re flying, you’ll need to ensure that your identification is Real ID compliant. It would be a shame to go through all of this planning only to be turned away at the airport! Since this potentially involves needing to get a passport or new State ID, the earlier we start the better.
190 Days Before Your Disney Trip
Although we’ll have discussed this beforehand, at about 190 days we’ll need to solidify which parks you want to visit on which days. Why is this important? This leads directly into those FP+ reservations. Although they’re not available yet we’ll want to take those into account when making your ADRs. That booking window opens at 180 days.
At this time, we also need to ensure you have a My Disney Experience account. If you don’t have one, we’ll guide you through creating one. Everyone in your traveling party will need to have an account and link them together. This will allow you (or us on your behalf) to make advanced FastPass+ selections and Advanced Dining Reservations when your reservation windows open.
We’ll want to discuss which restaurants you want to experience. Some are within the parks and some are at the resorts or Disney Springs. The more prepared we are for the 180-day reservation window opening the more likely it is that we can get you the experiences you want. It goes beyond just dining as well. There are other special activities that you can start booking then. Such as; fireworks cruises, Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, dessert parties, animal experiences at Animal Kingdom, and much more. Again, these are all of the things our Heyday Travel Advisors are here to help you with.
80 Days Before Your Disney Trip
We’ll want to order your park tickets, if not part of a package, at this point. We need those to arrive and be linked to your My Disney Experience account in order to make your FastPass+ selections.
At this time, we’ll also need to work towards solidifying your daily park and FastPass+ plans. This won’t be the first time we’ve discussed it, so it will likely just be deciding between previously discussed options. We’ll assist you in identifying what is most important to you and help you maximize your party’s selections.
60 or 30 Days Before Your Disney Trip
We’ll want to book FastPass+ reservations as soon as the window opens. WDW Resort guests can start booking for their entire length of stay 60 days in advance, at 7:00 AM EST, while off-site guests can make their reservations up to 30 days in advance for each day at the park. This can be another significant perk to staying on site.
45 Days Before Your Disney Trip
We’ll want to finalize your MagicBand customization at this time. We’ll record that in your MDE account for them to be shipped to your home in plenty of time. Disney’s deadline is really 30 days, but we like to allow extra time when possible.
Ideally, we should also finalize your travel details at this time. If you’re flying, Disney offers a service called Magical Express. This is included with your resort stay and provides transportation from Orlando International Airport (MCO only) to your resort. If registered far enough out, they will even arrange transportation of your luggage. That’s right, no standing around and grabbing your bags from the carousel. You walk right from your gate to a bus and head towards Disney World! How magical is that?
When using Magical Express, this may change how you want to pack. Your luggage may be as long as 3 hours behind you. What you place in your carryon luggage will depend on how you intend to spend your arrival day.
10 Days Before Your Disney Trip
Review and finalize your plans. Write out or print a daily itinerary with your priority activities to have on hand. Although you’ll have access to online plans in the parks there is something inherently comforting about a hardcopy.
Purchase Disney World’s Memory Maker photo service. You will save purchasing it ahead of time and ensure that it is linked to your account ahead of arrival.
This may also be your last opportunity to purchase travel protection. While this is optional insurance it is something we always recommend. For the coverage that it provides, it is typically a fairly economical cost.
3 Days Before Your Disney Trip
Review and print your reservation details. You’ll also want to review and monitor the weather a bit closer. This will be your last opportunity to make any last-minute packing changes. The weather may change how you plan on spending your arrival day. Especially if flying and using Magical Express, you’ll need to consider what is in checked luggage and what in a carryon. We also suggest getting everything packed and weighed prior to the day of departure. If you need to adjust at the last minute, it is much less stressful with 48-72 hours before departure than it is at 24 hours or less.
High Popularity ADR
In our experience, there are certain dining reservations and activities that reach capacity quickly. If you’re wanting to experience any of these, listed below, we strongly suggest you make them a priority at the opening of your 180-day window.
- Beaches and Cream
- Be Our Guest Restaurant
- Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique
- California Grill
- Chef Mickey’s
- Chef’s Table at Victoria and Albert’s
- Cinderella’s Royal Table
- Cirque du Soleil
- Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue
- Le Cellier
- Princess Storybook Dining at Akershus Royal Banquet Hall
High Popularity FastPass+
Likewise, you should make your FastPass+ selections as soon as your 60 or 30-day window opens. Here are some of the, typically, most difficult FastPass+ reservations to make:
- Peter Pan’s Flight (Magic Kingdom)
- Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (Magic Kingdom)
- Space Mountain (Magic Kingdom)
- Frozen Ever After (Epcot)
- Soarin’ (Epcot)
- Test Track (Epcot)
- Flight of Passage (Animal Kingdom)
- Navi River Journey (Animal Kingdom)
- Expedition Everest (Animal Kingdom)
- Toy Story Midway Mania (Hollywood Studios)
- Slinky Dog Dash (Hollywood Studios)
Read the next article in our Planning Guide series here: Planning the Core of your Walt Disney World Vacation.
Overwhelmed Yet? Let Us Help YOU!
Heyday Travel Company can plan a Disney vacation that’s perfect for you. We are a free Disney travel planner with expert knowledge of the entire Disney catalog and Universal Parks destinations. No matter where you want to go, our experienced team is excited to help you make it happen. We provide our service at no charge, so you’ll only have to pay for the vacation itself. If you want help planning a Disney trip that’ll make your dreams come true while also fitting your budget, let’s talk!