Dreams Do Come True: Tips for Planning Your Trip to Disney World

If you’re considering taking a Disney Vacation, here are some great, tried and true tips for planning your trip to Disney!! Be sure to pin this post or bookmark it for later! You’ll also want to check out this guide to all the parks! 

Making the Decision to Take a Disney Vacation

Finances

The hubby and I started really throwing around the idea of taking a family vacation to Disney world in early 2015. Even from the start, this idea was overwhelming and seemed a bit out of our grasp financially. Of course, having never been to Disney, I didn’t have the foggiest clue as to how to plan. The sticking point was thinking that we would have to pay a couple grand up front and close to the time we wanted to go.

Let me ease that concern right now. Disney allows you to make payments toward your vacation! That’s right, with enough planning, you can have enough time to make smaller payments that don’t affect your household budget. How awesome is that? So, last Christmas, we pooled together the cash gifts that our grandparents sent to make our down payment. The minimum down payment is only $250. Then, you just periodically make payments with the final balance due 30 day before your vacation begins.

Timing

To begin planning your vacation you’ll want to visit Disney Go. This is where you can start mocking up your vacation; when, where, how long, etc. *Helpful hint: Your package includes park tickets for arrival and departure days; if it’s not necessary to go to a park those days, then reduce your ticket count and that will reduce your package price.* Since this was my vacation as well as the family’s, my preferences were going to play into when we would go. There were two events that were an absolute must and, thankfully, they overlapped each other in October. October is an amazing time of year in Florida; it’s still warm but not crazy hot like the summer. It’s also off-season, so the crowds are lighter. There are many choices on Pinterest to help figure out when to go to Disney, but here is the crowd calendar I used. 

Driving vs Flying

Drive or Fly? That is the question. I can definitely see the draw of just taking a flight for three hours. Nobody really wants to spend two days on the road. However, plane tickets for a family of five is nearly the price of a second Disney vacation. That was definitely not in our budget. So, we decided to drive and I’m glad we did.

Tips for Planning Your Trip to Disney World - Travel

We had some amazing experiences just on our drive alone. Our teen got a couple of hours of highway driving time (in rural Iowa and Missouri), my flat-landers saw mountains for the first time, we saw St. Louis, Nashville, and Atlanta. On our way home we headed to Daytona Beach to see the ocean before driving north and we saw ‘bear crossing’ signs in Georgia. (Really!)

Staying at a Resort Without Breaking your Budget

There are plenty of pros and cons lists out there about staying at a Disney resort. Picking a resort is part of the package and that was the draw for us. We could park our van once we got there and take the Disney transportation everywhere. I like free transportation! We stayed at what is considered a “value resort”… I’m not really sure why. Was it the Grand Floridian? No, it was not. However, there was nothing at the All-Star Music Resort that made me feel like we had skimped.

Tips for Planning Your Trip to Disney - Where to Stay

There were a couple a couple of different resort options that would have worked just fine, but we went with All-Star Music because it had a family suite. This means we had a kitchenette, a bedroom with a king bed, two full bathrooms, and a couch, chair, and ottoman that all converted to beds, which meant each kid got their own bed, yay!!! Seriously, that’s the best way to stay for a full week. During the day, everything folded up and we had more than enough living space.

Since we had a kitchenette, I packed our George Foreman grill, our sandwich maker, and a microwave pan to do some in-room cooking to save money in the budget. In room breakfasts, some lunches, and some light dinners were the perfect ways to save some cash. Then we could splurge a little at the food and wine festival and go to a higher priced themed restaurant. Pinterest has tons of options for hotel room cooking. This is the one I used to start getting some ideas.

Planning Your Activities

Once you have your vacation package set, it’s time to start thinking about what your vacation is going to look like. When booking your vacation, you’ll have created a My Disney Experience account. This is where you are going to see your itinerary, reservations, FastPass+ choices, etc. Essentially, it is now your one stop shop to plan your things to do and see. When you are looking at each of the four main parks you options are split into four categories.

  • Attractions 

    These will be your rides and things to do. If you are traveling with littles, make sure to pay attention to height requirements. If you’re expecting a situation where someone will barely glance at your just shy of the height line child and wave them through, think again. Cast members that maintain the lines will turn children away. Most everything that you have to stand in line to get into will have a FastPass+ option so you’ll want to look into that as well. More on the FastPass+ in a bit.

  • Characters & Entertainment 

    This will be all the Disney characters, area characters, stage shows, park performances, etc. Most of these you can just stumble upon because there are multiple performance times throughout the day, which makes the park experience pretty cool. However, some performances are only one time.  If something like The Flag Retreat at Magic Kingdom sounds really fun, make sure it is on your itinerary or you’ll miss it. *Helpful Hint: Use FastPass+ to see your favorite Disney Princess or Disney Character, otherwise you’ll be standing in long lines.* However, some Disney Princesses and Characters don’t have that option and their lines are long anyway. Sorry for that bit of news.

  • Restaurants & Dining Experiences 

    Disney was very nice and sent a fridge magnet that outlines some important dates for us. One of those dates was to begin booking any dining reservations 6 months in advance. *Helpful Hint: Do NOT ignore this part of the timeline!* Dining reservations, especially dinner, go fast! It was almost impossible to find times one month away from vacation time. A few of the different types of dining are buffet, casual, character, events, shows, fine, themed, quick-service, and more. Disney does have the option to search for restaurants by price ($, $$, $$$, $$$$). Living in Iowa, understand that $ means $14.99 and under, but if it is food that is not a snack it’ll be closer to that $14.99 price for everyone.

  • Special Events & Tours 

    Theses are tours that need extra tickets, meets, after-hours events, and VIP things. This would be an extra special treat because these tickets ain’t cheap. We chose to attend Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party and it cost an additional $500 upfront.

The Fastpass+

This by far is going to be one of the most important aspects to the vacation or you’ll end up waiting in long lines. It took me over half way into our vacation to figure out how to really utilize this feature. Hopefully, this will keep you from making the same mistake. There are many different write ups on what to choose, but this website really breaks down what is worth the FastPass+ and what is not.

Tips for Planning Your Trip to Disney - FastPass+

The FastPass+ reservation is loaded right to your magic band. Scan at the entrance of the attraction and you are good to go.

  • 60 days out- Two months before it’s vacation time you can start picking your FastPasses. Do it as early as you can, especially for the extremely popular attractions and characters. You get three a day plus a rolling pass. This means you pre-select three experiences and then the day of you get the rolling pass. The key here is to reserve your three as close together as you can first thing in the day. You have one hour window to jump in the FastPass+ line.
  • The day of- As mentioned above, the key is to do all your FastPass+ reservations early in the day. The day of you will utilize your rolling pass. *Helpful Hint: All three pre-selected FastPass+ reservations must be completed before you get your rolling pass.* Every time you use the rolling pass you can add another reservation one at a time. Potentially, you don’t have to wait in any long lines. However, some of the popular attractions sell out on times.
  • Single Rider lines- This isn’t so much a FastPass+ thing, but it is a really cool feature we noticed. If a member of your group is riding solo they can jump in a single rider line (where available) and get paired with the odd man out of another group. As a family of five we had a single rider paired with our odd man out. This is a great way to skip the long line.

Other Experiences

  • Parades- There are many different parades throughout the parks. Some are once a day and others have multiple show times. The best option is to pick up list events times when you enter the park to see what might be happening that day.
  • Fireworks/Lightshows- Fireworks every night! It’s so magical. Each park has some sort of ending to the day that you won’t want to miss. Again, times will be listed on the events flier.
  • Live Entertainment- This is miscellaneous entertainment that you run into while you are exploring the park. Disney has many street performances and most of them include audience participation. It’s the perfect way to jump in a feel like you are part of the Disney atmosphere. 

All the Walking

My sister challenged me to a work week hustle on Fitbit… I won. It would be a good idea to start walking before your vacation if walking long distances day after day is not the norm. By mid-week I’m pretty sure my legs wanted to die and fall off. My teen, who is taking a Crossfit gym class, felt the same way. Just consider walking as some pre-vacation prep.

Additionally, make sure each member of your group has a water bottle and refill wherever you can. Even if the water bottle is not empty. If we ate at a restaurant I would order ice water and pour it in my water bottle. The parks do have drink fountains occassionally. We only ever ran out of water one day and it was the hottest day of the week.

Besides water, the other must-haves for all the walking is sunscreen, good shoes, and comfy bags. There is a real draw to looking super cute in all your Disney pictures but not at the expense at walking comfortably. I can’t even begin to quantify the number of women who were hobbling around because they wore cute shoes or flip flops. Just wear your comfy sneakers. Also, if you have a few people in the group wearing a comfortable backpack or cinch sack then one person won’t get bogged down with all the weight.

Gift Shops & Souvenirs

It won’t be long into the vacation before you notice that a gift shop is attached to nearly every attraction. There are also a ton of free standing gift shops too. I figured that my kiddos would want to buy everything. Honestly, I wanted to buy everything! Buying souvenirs was going to be the most important part of sticking to the budget.

Our best solution was to buy Disney gift cards through the SCRIP program at our children’s school. We got our spending money and the school got a kick back, win-win. Each kid received $75 worth of gift cards and that is what they the were allowed to spend for the week. 100% their choice as long as I did not have to carry it.

I would love to report that this worked perfectly, but to be honest we did have tears on the very last day, at the very last gift shop. Little girlie had spent all her money by mid week (on some pretty cool stuff) and she did just fine right up until the end. I think the end of the vacation just caught up, it was late, and with all the cool stuff it’s understandable she felt like she was missing out. Thankfully, sticking to the gift cards through out the week made it much easier to say ‘no’ without feeling too bad about it.

My Disney Experience App

At least one member of the group should have this app on their phone. It was an amazing tool to navigate the parks. The app holds your itinerary, shows character locations, provides wait times for the attractions, and dining options and locations. It’s also really nice to be able to pull up the park maps on your phone rather than carrying the paper version. The app will also show your location on the map. My Disney Experience also holds your photo taken by the park cameras.

Of course, between using the app and taking hundreds of photos, portable battery chargers are a must!

Things I Would Do Differently

A Longer Stay

I think everyone in my family could agree that a longer stay would have been nice. We had five park days in our vacation package; 1 park per day plus and extra day to revisit a park. The break down should go: 1 day for Animal Kingdom, 1 day for Hollywood Studios, 2 days for Epcot, and 2 days for Magic Kingdom. That is not even taking into account any other Disney parks you may want to visit or anything not Disney you may want see.

Disney does provide the option of a Park Hopper for an additional fee. This allows you to visit multiple parks in a day and lots of people do this. However, I’m devoted to spending an entire day at one park and trying to experience as much of it as I can.

Realistic Budgeting

  • Travel Expenses- We underestimated how much we would spend on travel. It was still less than airfare but not by much. We were pretty realistic in our expectations for gas. It was the food and and hotel stays that added up. Next time, we may consider flying because if we are paying near to that amount to drive for two long days then we might as well fly and save time.
  • Food- Looking back I wish I would have stuck to our plan for food a little better. We ending up eating quick service (about $60-$70 every time) more than we had planned. That really ate into our budget. A way to combat stopping for food is packing snack and/or a lunch. I didn’t find this out until much too late, but Disney allows you to bring food into the park. My food planning would have looked much different if I had known this up front.

Skip Disney Springs

Disney Springs is an outdoor shopping and dining experience. Just skip this place unless shopping is part of your plan. Otherwise, don’t take time away from the parks to hang here for half the day. Either give Disney Springs its own day or skip.

Extra Magic Hours

Disney provides “extra magic hours” for those with magic bands (bracelets that store your tickets, vacation info, and is your room key). The hours are either before open or after close. The extra hours are only a “meh” for me. Hubby and I used the extra hours after regular closing at Epcot for a date night. The Problem there was that most of the World Showcase food booths and shops closed with the regular hours. We didn’t experience any of the early extra magic hours because we don’t get up that early.

During the School Year

To take your kids out of school or not is a big decision. One that really can only be answered by you. It is my opinion that going during the school year while the kids are in elementary school is no big deal. Our teachers were accommodating in sending school work for the week that kids worked on during the 18 hours car ride. If you have a middle/high school student you may need to weigh the pros and cons a bit more. Our high schooler has a heavy advanced academic workload and it was a struggle to catch up, even with working on homework during our travels.

Things we Missed

As we wrapped up our week it became very apparent that not being able to do everything is true. Even on our perfect vacation things got missed. There is only so much you can pack into a day and into a week.  These are few of our ‘next time’ priorities and or things you may not want to miss if you take a family vacation:

  • Jedi Training: Trials of the Temple (Hollywood Studios)- We made our way to the gift shop where you sign up for this event about 15 minutes too late. Unfortunately, my kiddos will be too old for this by the time we make it back. If  you have young Star Wars fans then this is something to sign up for first thing in the morning.
  • Over Half of Magic Kingdom- Upon reflection, this is a travesty. We went during the Halloween season and I didn’t even get to the Haunted Mansion. Penelope wanted to go in the castle but it was closed off for a performance. We didn’t even walk through half the park. Think about spending two full days here for the best experience.
  • Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster (Hollywood Studio)- Hubby really wanted to go on this ride but I hadn’t figured out how to use FastPass+ efficiently at that point. By the time the line was light enough to wait in it was time to start getting seated for the Fantasmic show.
  • Frozen Ever After (Epcot)- This attraction is a FastPass+ must or you’ll wait in line for 2 or more hours. Unfortunately, the FastPass+ times get snatched up quickly and were gone before we even started packing for vacation.
  • Characters in Epcot- The Characters here do not have FastPass+ options. They just have performance times you can add to your itinerary. We did not pay attention to times so by the late afternoon and evening when we went character hunting it was too late for many of them.
  • Characters elsewhere- Anyone could make a vacation solely for the purpose of character hunting and meet and greets. Now that we’ve been through the parks and on a lot of the ride we might be willing to stand in more lines next time.

Hopefully these tips will help you as you begin to plan your own Disney vacation!! For those of you who have been before, what tips would you add?


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Jenn is a self-proclaimed Iowa girl transplanted from the mitten state a decade ago. Jenn, along with her husband Ben, is raising 3 sweet little Fritzlings; Erin (16), Robbie (10), and Penelope (9). Aside from doing an awesome job at momming, she works part-time in retail to help fund the fun stuff. Jenn can be found with a good book, playing Sims 4, writing, gardening, geocaching, cycling, outdoorsing…or drinking 5 cups of coffee in her spare time. Like a cat in a sunbeam, Jenn's most favorite thing in the world is napping.

4 COMMENTS

  1. This was such a thorough review – thank you! Disney has just come onto our radar so this was very helpful to me!

  2. I found this page when I googled how we might use our school SCRIP program in conjunction with a trip to Disney. We’re planning our first visit for February 2018. Thanks for all the helpful advice!

    • Nichole, I hope you have so much fun on your vacation! I did SCRIP just for the Disney GC but next time I do some heavy duty traveling I plan on checking any other groups for gift cards for gas, hotel, etc.

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