If you have never been to Walt Disney World (WDW) before but are planning your first trip or if you’ve been a few times but can never get those dinner reservations or come away and then hear people talking about “must dos” that you had never heard of then this is the blog post for you.
I love Walt Disney World and I love planning things so a Disney holiday is pretty much the perfect holiday for me. WDW has changed a lot in the last ten years and changed massively in the last 20 years so if you are thinking of going back after a hiatus you should know that there is now a lot more planning involved! As an example there are certain restaurants that you just won’t get into if you’re not on it 6 months out to book your table – nope not kidding. And if you have never been before then you may not have thought about dining experiences as something you’d get on a “theme park” holiday.
Here are (some of) my (many) tips…
I’m going to start with a quick, no detail, to do list and then expand on it below:
1.Pick a time of year to go – see “Touring Plans” below.
2. Research accommodation options – see “get the best deal” below
3. Read all the information!
4.Pick must dos for dining, rides, experiences etc – Work out when you can reserve/book these and be on it!
Now the more detailed list –
1. Research, research, research and then research some more.
This isn’t a Disney blog, I just love our Walt Disney World holidays and wanted to post about it but there are a lot of Disney blogs out there and this is where you should start your planning/research. My top picks for blogs are:
Disney Tourist Blog – Tom and Sarah Bricker are probably the most knowledgeable Disney bloggers out there and Tom, who writes the majority of posts, has a great writing style that makes the blog hugely enjoyable. You can also read the forum posts on the blog for tips from fellow Disney parks fanatics.
Touring Plans – Before you decide what time of year to go I would consider shelling out for a Touring Plans subscription. This website collates ride wait times and crowd numbers to create a brilliant resource which will predict crowds at the parks per day and should help you avoid the worst times of year to go. For example – September, great time to go due to low crowds, good weather and extra events in parks. July 4th – You won’t be able to see your own feet walking down Main St…! I know, we’ve been there! We may have planned our wedding date around this website’s information due to going to WDW on honeymoon, for “may have” read absolutely positively did, and when I say we I mean I…!
Disney Parks Mom’s Panel – It is my goal to be a Mom’s panelist one day but that does require being a “mom” so that’s not going to happen for a while! On this official Disney website you can read questions and answers submitted by others and submit your own questions too. It is a hugely helpful resource when you just can’t work out something from other sources. I’ve asked a couple of questions in the past and always had them answered. This is a great resource for new ideas for what to see and do if you are a repeat visitor too.
Disney Food Blog - Does what it says on the tin but if you are skeptical about finding a decent meal in a “theme park” this should be your first stop! Food at Disney can be hit and miss yes BUT when it’s a hit, it’s great. With so many restaurants, experiences and price points you can be sure you will find multiple places you are looking forward to visiting.
DIS Boards and WDW Info - The DIS is the online community for Disney and Disney parks fans. The forum boards are full of other people who love the parks and their Disney holidays. You can read hundreds of trip reports written by others, watch the DIS YouTube channel for daily info updates and read the articles on WDWinfo.com
2. Make your own opinions on “must dos”
There are a lot of Disney lists out there, “things to miss”, “things not to miss”, “Disney snacks you have to eat” – FYI on the last one if you followed these lists to the letter none of your clothes would fit by the end of the holiday! But the best way to work out what you shouldn’t miss is to stalk the official Disney website, look at rides, look at menus, figure out transport etc. For example I love Typhoon Lagoon, one of WDW’s two water parks, but if you hate swimming/getting wet then it’s not going to be a must do for you. We also love trying different food so our must do restaurants will be a total mix of cuisines but if you’re a fussy eater then our ideal evening would be far from yours!
3. Create a My Disney Experience Account.
This is the hub of your holiday planning. It’s where you can link your hotel reservations (if you’re staying on Disney property), make your restaurant reservations (regardless of where you stay), link (and buy) your park tickets, link Memory Maker (see below), customise your magic bands (if you stay on property), make your FastPass+ reservations, keep a wish list etc etc. It will also provide you with a handy count down to your Disney holiday! wooo!
Yes I plan our Disney holidays pretty much a year in advance, yes I’m that weird! This image shows you the My Disney Experience interface, the countdown is there because we stay on property in a Disney hotel and I have linked our reservation to it.
4. Make a spreadsheet and lists
So you know from 1 & 2 that the key to a successful and relaxing Disney holiday is to plan – you plan in advance so you can switch off and chill once there. The next key is to secure your plan by nabbing your dining reservations and getting those FastPasses that you really need.
Once you know what you want to see/where you want to eat my first stop is to put together a planner of your time in WDW and mark on that the park opening hours for each day, whether there are Extra Magic Hours (EMH) (extra hours pre-park opening/post park closing where guests staying on property can get in earlier/stay later to a set park per day). The importance of EMH is that if you aren’t staying on property you don’t want to go to a park with morning EMH because you’ll be disadvantaged by the hundreds of people already in and ahead of you in lines. They are also important because if you plan on dining in a park pre-opening (you can do this whether you stay on property or not) then you don’t want EMH mucking up that plan. People like pre-opening breakfasts for empty-park photos/the opportunity to finish eating and get to rides before the other guests making their way from the entrance. NB as of early 2017 there is almost no advantage to pre-park opening breakfasts at the Magic Kingdom. Due to the new opening show/format all guests are allowed to explore Main St USA up to an hour before official opening, no more empty Main St shots.
This will have given you an idea of which park you want to visit on which day which in turn gives you an idea of your geographical location in WDW resort, from there it is easier to narrow down your dining options from your wish list. Now mark that rough plan onto your planner and get ready to book.
On your calendar/phone calendar etc work out your 180 days, 60 days and 30 days out – this calendar helps you do that (note the set up is American so days/months are inverted) – and mark your days for booking.
180 days out (6 months) – Mouse at the ready, clicking finger steady, go! If you want to eat at Victoria&Albert’s, Cinderella’s Royal Table, Ohana, Chef Mickey’s, Be Our Guest, California Grill or any of the restaurants appearing on the majority of “must do” lists (I know I said make your own must dos but in all likelihood your tastes are going to align with at least one of the above) then you’re going to have to be on it. You can use the online option or call Disney but I always use online. Reservations open at 6am EST on your 180 days point – another advantage of booking from the UK it’s already a far more civilised time of day when we get to book. And you should be online and ready to go.
If you are staying on property you can book your restaurants 180 days before you check in and make reservations for the fist 10 days of your stay. If you are staying off property you can still book at 180 days out but only one day at a time.
My tip is not to work through your holiday from first day to last when making reservations, instead start with the hardest to get reservations and work down the list – this is where lists cross referenced with your daily planner come in!
60/30 days out – If you are staying on property you can book your fast passes at 60 days out, if you’re off property then it’s 30 days. This is where guests staying on property are at a MASSIVE advantage. Even being on it when reservations opened at midnight EST (different time to dining) I have still not been able to change our FP+ for the most popular rides at popular times of day (and this is in “off season”) – again you need to know where and when you are going to be if you want to get those reservations. Just like for dining reservations start with the hardest to get FastPasses first and work backwards. E.g. Flight of Passage in Pandora, Na’avi River Journey, 7 Dwarfs Mine Train, Frozen Ever After, Anna&Elsa meet and greet (if that floats your boat), Toy Story Midway Mania etc.
If the above spreadsheet and talk of lists put you off then hang on a second, some of these plans are more set in stone than others e.g. certain meals that are our “must dos” but others can be scrapped if we want to do something else and FastPasses can be rescheduled (where possible) or missed entirely. The real key to a good Disney holiday is to plan in advance and then chill out once you are there, do not stick rigidly to your plan use it as a guide for your day so if you are all really tired and just want to sit in the shade, people watch and enjoy a Dole Whip (if you scratch the surface of WDW planning you’ll know what this is) then do it, forget the fast pass reservation. Better to miss your slot on Space Mountain than to do it then want to kill each other because you’re all grouchy! NB This doesn’t really apply to your dining reservations! Unless you cancel these 24 hours (sometimes 48 hours) in advance you will be charged a $10-$20 fee.
5. Get the best deal
Some of this is UK specific and some isn’t. Disney offers UK residents some really cracking deals in comparison to our less lucky American cousins, but hey they get to live on the same landmass as “The World” and we don’t! Firstly Disney tickets are a steal for us compared to in the US, generally you can’t get cheaper than Disney’s 14 Day Ultimate Ticket, this gives you 14 days of access to the parks for the price of 7 and includes unlimited entrance to water parks, park hopping and when we booked included Memory Maker for free. Memory Maker – you will see photographers all around the Disney parks who will take your picture for free (you can give them your own camera too). You then pay for the images you want to keep. Memory Maker gives you all the images taken of you/anyone in your party. On our Disneymoon (honeymoon) we used this a lot to get our money’s worth. It also includes selected ride photos/videos. Once your photo is taken the photographer will scan your magic band (or give you a card if you are staying off site) and the photos will appear on your My Disney Experience account. We loved looking over the days pictures over evening drinks!
Disney also regularly (about twice a year) offer free dining for UK residents at most times of the year, as long as you book about a year in advance. In the US these free dining deals are far rarer/more restrictive. This only comes with staying on property though and obviously there is no such thing as a free lunch (or breakfast or dinner) so it may mean you pay more for your room as opposed to booking outwith this deal period. Do your research and compare deals. Also compare hotels within Disney and be prepared to be flexible. For example the Yacht and Beach Clubs share facilities and are very similar but will often have big differences in room rates.
Don’t pay for what you won’t use – when we were on Disneymoon we splashed out for a more expensive room with a lagoon view because we knew we would want to hang out on our balcony and enjoy our room. If you know this isn’t going to be you then don’t pay out more for a room/view you will never see.
Pay moderate prices stay in deluxe hotels. Disney hotels are divided into three levels, value, moderate and deluxe with the prices reflecting the level. However with some research and flexibility you can pay the equivalent of a moderate resort fee and stay in a deluxe hotel, how? Rent DVC (Disney Vacation Club) points. We are doing this for our next holiday and saved 30-50% off Disney rack rate for our hotel – winning. This isn’t done through Disney but through brokers, we used DVC Rental Store, once you are booked however your booking is treated (via the My Disney Experience portal) as a standard booking right down to getting your magic bands. I wouldn’t hesitate to do this again and would now find it difficult to justify not doing it.
6. It’s not just about the parks
Wait. What? Yes, if you haven’t been to WDW before then this is probably news to you. WDW resort is twice the size of Manhattan (and you thought you’d just rock up and wing it…;) and the parks only make up a bit of the experiences to be had. With this knowledge in your pocket you can hugely increase the enjoyment of your holiday. Here’s how –
Above I spoke about staying on site and how it’s more affordable than you thought. If you also factor in your time as having a value then it just paid for itself to stay on site. Staying on site means you can: hop back to your room midday when the parks get too hot and busy, ditch the rental car, more easily eat “out of park”, book your restaurants and fast passes further in advance, get a “free” magic band..
However either way there are resorts so close to the theme parks that means you can escape midday whether you are staying or not. For example – There’s a second entrance to Epcot between France and the UK in the World Showcase and 5 minutes walk from there is the Boardwalk (shown in above pic), Beach&Yacht Clubs and all of these resorts have quiet spaces, including beaches and much quieter restaurants to enjoy. From the Magic Kingdom you are within walking/monorail distance of The Contemporary Resort, Polynesian and Grand Floridian all of which have, like the Epcot resorts, beaches, some quieter restaurants (and some of the hardest to book so don’t just assume resort=easy reservation!) and definitely places to kick back and have a drink – there’s limited alcohol in the Magic Kingdom (dinners at Be Our Guest, Skippers Canteen and a couple more) and if you are child free you may need a drink to deal with other people’s little pirates and princesses…
All of the Walt Disney World resort hotels also have their own restaurants. The Deluxe Resorts have some of the best restaurants on site. Our personal favourite is the Yachtsman Steak House at the Yacht Club (best. steak. ever). Even if you aren’t staying on site then I would highly recommend deciding which restaurant appeals to you the most and booking a table one night based on your park choice for the day. I would put money on the fact that you’d be staying on site for your trips after that…!
I mentioned the size of Walt Disney World resort and this is another thing to consider when booking hotels, dining reservations and considering park hopping. Transport around “the world” is free (whether you stay on or off site) and the options are plentiful so know before you go and plan accordingly – Disney Mom’s Panel helps with this a lot.
Final bonus tip – know where you are going… Disney fanatic pet peeve here – if you’re going to Florida you’re not going to Disneyland – you’re going to Walt Disney World
If you have any specific questions please leave a comment and I will happily help you out!
Happy Walt Disney World planning! °O°