I’ve been planning a trip to Disney World, and it’s no easy feat. We’ve been before, when the kids were very young, and we were very laid back about the whole thing — just being in the park and doing a few rides in Fantasyland was enough. We didn’t even stay on the premises.
This time it’s a whole different story. I dived deep into the complex world of Disney lodging, Fast Pass, and character dining. Things got serious. There are tons of awesome blogs out there, written by people who’ve been to Disney hundreds of times and examined the experience from thousands of angles. The most useful thing I could think of to contribute was a master list of the best resources I found online. Here it is, so you don’t have to waste your time sifting through the myriad of sites out there.
Warning: Get ready to give up a few hours – or days – of your life diving into the rabbit hole that is Disney vacation planning!
Start your planning by figuring out when to go. This detailed crowd calendar predicts the crowd levels for every day of the coming year. It also includes park hours and average weather conditions for the day. Choose your dates wisely, since crowds + severe humidity + small children can equal a really bad time for everyone.
Before you book anything, check Disney’s site for their current deals – sometimes they’re pretty good. The best discounts involve free dining for your entire trip or 30 percent off lodging, but are, of course, typically limited to the slower months. Makes you really consider pulling your kids out from school…
On or off premises? That is the lodging question. If your kids are young and one day at the Magic Kingdom is enough, maybe you want to consider staying off the premises to do other things like orange picking, checking out a gator park, or visiting nearby Legoland instead. We’ve had great experiences staying at the ridiculously affordable Caribe Cove Resort and the more upscale Marriott’s Lakeshore Reserve.
But if Disney World is the be all, end all of your vacation, then on premises is the way to go. Included are a free shuttle (that even goes to the airport!), extra hours at the parks, magic bands that keep track of everything, and first pick at Fast Pass times. Here are reviews for all the Disney hotels, and here they are sorted by price. (Pictured above is the Animal Kingdom Lodge.)
When it comes to booking your flight, don’t forget that there’s an airport right in White Plains, with direct flights to Orlando. Prices are either comparable or slightly higher than flights out of the NYC airports. I think it’s worth it to fly out of HPN, especially when you factor in the convenience and more low-key experience.
After You’ve Booked
Once you’ve secured your hotel and plane tickets, the next step is to plan out your days at the parks. You could just show up and wander around aimlessly, but remember that you’ll likely be mingling with more than 50,000 other guests, many of whom have researched the heck out of the rides, shows and restaurants, beating you to the head of every line. Start by reading about the rides your kids might be interested in going on and making a list.
Next, map out your plan of attack. With the crowds, it can be quite daunting to move around the park, so it’s best to group the rides you want to go on by the different sections within each park.
If you’d rather just have someone tell you how to plan your days, the experts have written some excellent one-day itineraries for each park.
A huge component of Disney planning is the Fast Pass, which are free reservations that you can make for each ride – so instead of waiting on line, you just reserve a certain time slot and show up for the ride at that time. Here’s a detailed primer on Fast Pass and how it works.
Disney offers two kinds of places to dine, table service restaurants and quick service (self-serve) restaurants. My preference is to make reservations for table service for both lunch and dinner so you don’t have to deal with crowds and lines, but the drawback is that you’re bound to your reservation – if you don’t show up, you’ll still be charged. Here’s a list of the restaurants in each park and their menus, plus the pros and cons of each. Or, you can just have someone tell you where to eat. (Pictured above is the insanely popular Be Our Guest restaurant.)
Just Before You Go
A couple of weeks out from your trip, check the Disney calendar for their hours of operation on the days of your visit – they may have shifted since you first started planning, which can be a game changer.
And finally, here’s a pretty great list of what to pack – it’s where I first encountered chilly towels and rain suits! The weather will play a huge part in your vacation, and it really helps to be prepared for extreme humidity or sudden downpours.