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How to Plan an Amazing Trip to Disney World

This past Thanksgiving, we decided to do things a little bit differently and spend the week at Disney World. We had a totally amazing time, and even though it wasn’t exactly your traditional Thanksgiving, it was a really fun way to switch things up. We actually managed to keep the trip a secret from the boys, only telling them a couple of days before we left. {I will do another post on exactly how we surprised them soon!}

Since we got back, I’ve had a lot of people ask questions about planning a Disney trip and what we liked and didn’t like while we were there, so I decided to share a few of my tips for planning a trip with all of you. In addition to the surprise post, I am also planning a few posts on our favorite restaurants, activities, and what I wore while we were there. So stay tuned!

Planning a trip to Disney World can be so overwhelming. Here are some great tips to help you plan an amazing trip!

Let me start off by saying a couple of things. 

First, I am in NO WAY an expert on anything Disney. I have been a handful of times, both with and without kids, but I am not one of those people who spouts off random Disney trivia facts every time you mention Mickey Mouse. This post is just about some tips and tricks — geared mostly toward people with elementary- and middle-school-aged kids — that I have learned that might make your trip a little bit more awesome.

Second, I am also not a Disney maniac. We do not go to Disney multiple times a year, nor do I plan to start. We have gone to Disney World twice with our children, once in the spring of 2012 {for that trip, Mason was a couple of weeks shy of his first birthday, so we left him with my parents and just took D and Connor, who were 6 and 4 at the time}, and once this November, when the boys were 11, 9 and 5. I think part of the magic of Disney is the excitement and the newness, and I worry that would wear off at some point. {Disclaimer: I am sure there are many people who go to Disney 5 or 6 times a year and love every second. Not saying there’s anything wrong with that. Just that it’s not right for my family.}

So, that being said, let’s get to it.

Decide when you want to go

I can actually hear a lot of you saying, “Well, duh…”, but hear me out on this. The time of year that you go to Disney World will have a HUGE impact on your time there. In 2012, we were there during our school district’s spring break the first week in March. What is fabulous about going at that time is that the weather is generally pretty warm, at least compared to Pennsylvania — daytime temperatures average in the mid- to upper-60s — but it’s not nearly as crowded as later in the month. That’s because it seems like most schools’ spring breaks are later in March, and even into early April. The Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival is also on at this time, and it’s really, really cool.

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Holidays, however, are a different story. It was CRAZY crowded while we were there this last time. I mean, like completely insane — the wait times for rides like Frozen Ever After at Epcot and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Magic Kingdom were regularly over 180 minutes in the afternoons and evenings. {I am clearly a bad mom, because there is no way in HELL that I would wait 3 hours for a ride. Sorry, kids.} As I’m writing this, at 5:00 p.m. on a Tuesday in February, the wait times for both of those rides is 90 minutes. Still long, but nothing like it was on Thanksgiving.

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However, being there during the holidays was kind of amazeballs. The parks are all decorated for Christmas, with gorgeous trees in every park, character meet-and-greets with Père Noel in France at Epcot and Father Christmas in England, Santa at Hollywood Studios, and special fireworks shows {with “snow” at Hollywood Studios and on Main Street in Magic Kingdom} and displays in the parks. We stayed at the Beach Club, and there was a working gingerbread carousel in the lobby.

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And don’t even get me started on Cinderella’s Frozen Castle.

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Plus, there’s just something really cool about walking around in 80-degree weather listening to “Winter Wonderland” on the loudspeakers. {You southerners probably don’t get what I’m saying here, but trust me, for us people up north, warmth and Christmas don’t usually mix.} 

The Undercover Tourist’s Crowd Calendar is a fantastic tool for determining what crowds are typically like at various times during the year if you’re not entirely sure when you want to go. Keep in mind though, regardless of when you go, there are going to be a ton of other people there. It’s Disney.

When I say “when you want to go”, though, I don’t just mean what time of year. Think, really THINK, about how old your kids are and if they’re going to get your money’s worth out of the trip. Disney is EXPENSIVE, and it is exhausting — for kids and adults. I was stunned at how many people I saw with tiny babies on our last trip. I actually spoke to one mom who had a 7-week-old strapped to her in a sling. God bless her, but I would have lost my mind.

As I mentioned, the first time we went with kids, Mason was just under a year old, and we decided that taking him would be way more trouble than it was worth. He wouldn’t have been able to ride on a whole lot of rides, he would have been an exhausted hot mess, and he clearly would not have remembered a single bit of it. Even Connor, who was 4 1/2, didn’t remember a ton from the last trip. I realize that there really is not much cuter than a teeny tiny little girl meeting the princesses in her Cinderella gown, but seeing that girl having a full-blown meltdown a few hours later might not be so cute anymore. I know a lot of people who have taken babies to Disney and have had a great time, but I also know a lot who have said they wish they would have waited until their kids were a bit older. If you’re not sure if your kids are ready for Disney, think about how your kids handle long days away from your house — for example at the beach, at an amusement park or fair, at a friend’s house, etc. If they can roll with it, then go crazy. If they turn into a screaming puddle of terror, think about spending thousands of dollars to deal with that for 5 or 6 days in a row. Yikes.

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This time, our kids were able to rally and see fireworks almost every night we were there. And meltdowns were at a minimum.

Decide where you want to stay

Choosing where to stay at Disney can be super overwhelming — there are over 25 Disney Resort options, not to mention the hundreds of other Orlando-area hotels. 

The easiest way is to start by deciding whether you want to stay in a Disney or non-Disney resort. There are pros and cons to both, so it ultimately depends on what is important to you.

If you stay in a Disney resort, you get a number of perks. You get free transportation to and from the airport on the Disney’s Magical Express bus, which also allows you to check your bags into the airline right from your hotel. You also get free transportation to and from other on-property hotels and all of the parks and free parking if you have a car. You can purchase Disney Dining Plans, you get free Magic Bands, and you get to enjoy extra Magic Hours at the parks. In addition, some of the resorts offer special themed rooms that are pretty much just straight-up awesome {pirate beds, anyone??}.

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Many of the hotels are also walking distance to some of the parks. For example, from the Beach Club, where we have stayed both times we’ve done Disney with kids, you can walk to both Epcot {our favorite park} and Hollywood Studios, or you can take a water shuttle. 

That being said, Disney resort hotels are generally more expensive than non-Disney hotels, and you can often find better deals if you don’t stay in a Disney hotel. There are also non-Disney hotels that are actually still on Disney property {sounds weird, I know, but Disney property encompasses over 40 square miles – almost twice the size of Manhattan!} and many that also offer free shuttle service to and from the parks. 

Decide what type of tickets you want

When you go to purchase your park tickets, you have a few options. The least expensive option is to purchase individual tickets that allow you to go to only one park per day. With kids, however, I personally do not recommend this. Think about it — you spend all day at Magic Kingdom, for example, but for one reason or another {lines were too long, tired and/or grumpy kids, temporary shut down on a ride}, you didn’t get to do everything you wanted to do. With this type of ticket, your only option is to go back to Magic Kingdom and spend another entire day there. And if you’re only staying for 4 days, that means you’ll have to miss out on one of the other parks this trip.

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With a park hopper ticket, however, you can go to as many parks as you want to per day. We used this feature almost every day this time. On Monday, the day we got there, we spent the whole day at Epcot, with a quick stop back in the room so Mason could nap {we had a 6:00 a.m. flight, so we had an EAAAARLY wake-up call!}. On Tuesday, though, we went to Hollywood Studios in the morning, stopped back in the room for another nap, headed to Disney Springs for dinner, and then headed back to Epcot to enjoy their extended magic hours. On Wednesday, we spent the morning at Animal Kingdom, spent an hour or so at the pool {one of our favorite things about the Beach Club!}, and went back to Hollywood Studios to watch their fireworks. We spent most of Thanksgiving day at Magic Kingdom, but we had dinner reservations at Coral Reef in Epcot, so we took a quick jaunt over there for dinner and then headed back to MK for the rest of the night. On Friday, our last day, the boys decided that they wanted to head back to Hollywood Studios to see the March of the First Order and ride Toy Story Mania and Star Tours one more time, but they also wanted to do Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure in Epcot, so we headed back over there to close out the day. 

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As you can see, the park hopper option is useful for allowing everyone to ride what they want to ride as many times as possible, but it is also great for dinners, because it doesn’t limit your dining options to just the park you’re in that day.  

Make a game plan

I like having a rough plan when we travel. Like, we’re going to go to this park on this day, and to this restaurant for dinner. And a few FastPasses. If you want to go a little crazy, feel free to check out TouringPlans.com, where you can get minute-by-minute plans for all of the parks. That’s a little too intense for me, but some people really love it.

You have a few ways to decide what park to go to on what day. Like I mentioned before, if you’re staying at a Disney resort hotel, you can take advantage of extra Magic Hours at each of the parks. Now, some people love this and some people actually avoid the Magic Hours parks on those days because they feel like they’re busier. For us, we really liked being there later or earlier, and I didn’t think it seemed that much more crowded than normal. Granted, we were there at one of the busiest times of the year, but still. 

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Dinner reservations can also determine when you go to which park. You can make reservations up to 180 days in advance of your trip, and some restaurants fill up quickly, so you may not get the day you want right away. Like I said before, though, we spent most of Thanksgiving at Magic Kingdom, but we left to go to dinner at Epcot and then went back, so unless you don’t have park hopper tickets, there’s nothing that says you MUST eat at the same park where you’re spending the day. 

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I recommend sitting down with your kids, if they’re old enough to provide input into your plans, and asking them what rides, attractions or other activities they really want to do. We had our kids each pick 2 or 3 things per park that were totally non-negotiable, and then made sure we planned to hit those first. Once those were out of the way, we could take our time and try to hit the rest of the stuff. There were definitely a few things that we’d have liked to do but didn’t get to, but no one was heartbroken about missing the one thing they absolutely had to do.

 

Keep in mind, too, that there is a lot of non-park stuff that kids will want to do. This is something we didn’t really think about this last time, so we had planned to spend all of our days at the park. Our kids, however, wanted to hang out at the pool and at the arcade in the hotel. D desperately wanted to ride the boat back and forth from Hollywood Studios, and Connor and Mason wanted to walk around the lake at the Boardwalk. We realized that to them, those things are as much a part of the vacation as the parks themselves. 

Whatever you do, though, especially if you’re traveling with kids, be flexible. I can’t tell you how many times I saw parents dragging screaming, clearly overtired kids around, talking about how they have to get to their next FastPass time. That is just not fun for everyone. No matter how hard you try, you are never going to be able to do everything you want to do at Disney in one trip. Unless you’re staying for a month. Which if you are, more power to you. And also: I want to be your kid. 

Consider a Disney Credit Card

A few months before we left, a friend of mine posted on Facebook that Disney was doing a special offer with their Disney Rewards Visa card. When you signed up for a Disney Rewards Visa and spent $500 within 3 months, you got a $200 Disney Gift Card. Since we were just about to buy furniture for our new deck anyway, I decided to do it, and I will tell you, the $200 definitely came in handy. They do this offer numerous times throughout the year, so if you’re interested, feel free to shoot me an email to see if I have any referral codes available. {Disclosure: I am in no way affiliated with the Disney Rewards card or Visa in general, but as a cardholder, I get rewards dollars when people use my code to sign up.}

Cardholders also get other perks, like earning rewards dollars for any purchases on the card which can be used to purchase Disney vacations, items at the Disney Store, and tickets to Disney and Star Wars movies as well as Disney/Star Wards DVDs; private cardmember experiences and character meet-and-greets at the various Disney parks; and discounts on shopping at the Disney Store, dining, guided tours, recreation experiences and select salon and spa locations. 

So if you’re going to be using a credit card anyway, and you know you’ll be headed to Disney World at some point in the future, it may make sense to get a Disney card and reap the benefits that come with it.

Use your resources

Finally, by far the best thing you can do when planning your trip, in my opinion, is to talk to your friends who have been to Disney World recently. Disney is so huge, with so many things to see and do, that even if you’ve been a thousand times, someone who’s only been once may have some great tips and tricks for you. I can’t tell you how many friends have asked me about our trip and what suggestions I have for them, and some of them have been way more times than we have. 

If you’re on it, Facebook is a fantastic resource. Aside from being able to ask for suggestions from friends, there are tons and tons of Disney-related FB groups out there. I joined a local Disney group {for any State College readers, it’s The Nittany Mouse Clubhouse} that was extremely helpful, and I spoke with lots of friends who had been recently.

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Facebook is also how I learned about the free shuttle from Disney resorts to a nearby urgent care, which came in super handy on our first visit, when Connor ended up coming down with strep on the first night of our vacation. {Yeah, that was a fun one. Thank goodness for antibiotics, is all I’m saying. He was a new man by the next morning.}

There are approximately 5,329,872 apps and websites out there that are geared to Disney planning. Many have email lists you can sign up for and forums where you can ask questions of some of those Disney maniacs I mentioned above. Some of my favorites, and the ones I used the most are: the My Disney Experience app, the Magic Guide app, the Disney World website, TouringPlans.com {their reservation finder is one of the most helpful resources I have found!}, WDW Info, and AllEars.net, but like I said, there are tons of others out there.

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So there you have it, hopefully some of these tips helped you! Do you have any other tips or suggestions that I didn’t mention here? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above may be affiliate links. Among others, we are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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