Planning a trip to Walt Disney World is an art, and the task of crafting a perfect itinerary can be a downright daunting assignment. With four major theme parks, more than two dozen Disney-owned resorts and a veritable of character encounter opportunities, the options are extensive.
Make lifelong memories and the most of your time and money with our insider tips, provided by experienced parents and World travelers.
SET THE DATE
Learn the seasonal secret. What's the best strategy for seeing Walt Disney World Resort for the first time and on a budget? Two words: Value Season, says Walt Disney World Moms Panel member Kaylene Jablecki, a mother of five. Travel during this time period, one of a number of rate-specific seasons on the Walt Disney World Resort accommodations calendar, and you'll enjoy lighter crowds, along with the lowest room rates of the year, she says. As a bonus, if you opt to stay at a Disney-owned property, you may also qualify for free dining offers.
Beat the crowds -- or join the party pack. If you can't stand crowds, skip the school holidays. In particular, Easter, mid-June to mid-July and Christmas to New Year's Day are known to bring the most company, but for those willing to join the party pack, there's often a hidden reward, says Disney spokesman Dave Herbst. "Busy times sometimes feature longer park operating hours and additional entertainment. This is the "flip side" to the increased number of guests that vacationers are 'sharing the fun' with." Experienced World travelers will tell you that September (low season/light crowds) and the period between Thanksgiving and mid-December (calm coupled with holiday splendor) can be a dream, while months when special events are held are the time to go if your devotion to a special interest or hobby is equal to or greater than your affection for costumed characters.
Watch the weather. Beyond rates and crowd levels, weather is another factor that can brighten -- or dampen -- a trip around the World. June through September mean heat and humidity, while November through April bring less sweat and less need for a poncho. If you must travel during the summer, pack your antiperspirant along with your patience, and plan to take a mid-day pool break. "The reality is that most people come when they can," says veteran publicist and dad Herbst, who logged numerous summer visits with his own family before arriving at the World gates for work over three decades ago.
Seek out Special Offers. Prior to booking, both Jablecki and Herbst recommend checking for special Disney Deals, found on our Disney Deals page.
CHOOSE A COMFORTABLE HOME BASE
Weigh the benefits of an onsite resort stay. Orlando is timeshare and vacation home central, so if you're traveling with a pack of Mouse fans, you'll probably save some money if you opt to bunk outside the World. (Find Orlando-area vacation rentals here.) If you're wondering whether you should reside with Mickey 24/7 or else conserve some cash by booking an offsite accommodation, consider the benefits of an overnight visit: Stay at a Disney-owned resort, and you'll enjoy a number of valuable perks, including free resort and airport transportation, free theme park parking and the exclusive ability to enter theme parks early or stay late while enjoying select attractions during extended "Extra Magic Hours." If you're an early riser, the latter advantage means it's possible to cross off a good number of attraction "musts" before lunchtime -- even during high season.
Prioritize options. Beyond proximity and ease of access to specific theme parks, factors you'll want to consider when selecting a resort include price, theme, maximum occupancy and family-friendly amenities. For an overview of options, read Choosing your Walt Disney World Resort Hotel, then check out Family Vacation Critic's reviews of Walt Disney World Resort properties, which include detailed information on special family considerations like sleeping arrangements, play areas, childcare options and kid-friendly dining and recreational offerings.
MAKE TIME TO DINE
Book early or pay the price. As any parent who's seen a sinking blood sugar-meltdown can attest, hungry kids and no reservations almost always equal a sorry scene. While it might not be a top priority when you're planning a family ski vacation or a group beach getaway, taking the time to map out dining plans well in advance of a Walt Disney World visit can mean the difference between an enjoyable vacation and one distinguished by long waits, irritability and disappointment. For those who favor the former scenario, 180 is the magic number -- the specific amount of days prior to a resort visit when you can reserve a time to dine at a sit-down venue.
To guarantee preferences, Jablecki recommends visitors start planning not six, but instead seven months in advance, factoring in an extra 30 days for itinerary coordination. When taking advantage of the 180-day booking window, she cautions, every minute counts. "I can't stress this enough -- you have to be on that phone (407-939-3463; lines open at 7 a.m. EST) or online at Disneyworld.com at 6 a.m. if you want to get Cinderella's Table for your royal princess, California Grill during the fireworks, or if you have your heart set on eating at Chef Mickey's your first night. The dining options at Disney are unbelievable -- and they are incredibly popular."
Consider a Disney Dining Plan. When you book at a Disney resort, you have the option of also booking a "Magic Your Way" package, which includes Disney dining plans in a variety of configurations from Quick-Service to Premium. "Do the math," suggests Jablecki. "It's an incredible savings. You cannot feed a child at Disney World for $11.99 a day." Jablecki personally prefers the "Plus Dining" package, which allows for one table service meal per day. Before booking, she advises parents to consult theme park calendars. "Certain events, such as Fantasmic!, a do-not-miss show, are not offered every day -- you can only book it a couple of nights a week."
GET YOUR (DONALD) DUCKS IN A ROW
Use the tools. Now that you're familiar with the ways of the World, it's time to get down to the nitty-gritty. Booking airfare, accommodations and theme park tickets should be your first orders of business, after which you'll want to determine a basic itinerary and make reservations for sit-down meals. Ideally, these tasks will be completed at least six months in advance. You can book items separately or bundle them together in a "Magic Your Way" package. Make your way to Disney's Vacation Planning Center, where you'll find in-depth planning guides and online tools. You can order Disney's free vacation planning video, too, which Jablecki recommends for first-timers.
Get the right tickets. Make sure that you buy the right tickets for your traveling party -- choices range from single-day, single theme park tickets to multi-day tickets with no expiration. For purposes of practicality (remember the five kids), as well as cost savings, Jablecki prefers to purchase Magic Your Way Base tickets, which limit visitors to a single theme park per day, as opposed to those with a "Park Hopper" option -- which add a surcharge along with the ability to move about multiple parks. "There is so much to see and do at each park that you don't need to hop," she says. "You can fully immerse yourself." Note that if you opt not to hop, you'll need to consult theme park calendars carefully, since Extra Magic Hours and special events fluctuate by date.
But Family Vacation Critic editor and mother of two, Lissa Poirot, also warns to read carefully what the ticket options are. "When I took my kids to Disney for the first time, I bought a two-day pass thinking it was a park hopper pass. I took the kids to the Magic Kingdom the first day, which they loved, and then Animal Kingdom on the second. They weren't very impressed and couldn't ride many of the rides so we made our way back to Magic Kingdom, parked, took the ferry over, and went through a number of lines before discovering our ticket wasn't valid. And we didn't get a hand stamp to get back in at Animal Kingdom. My kids cried the entire time we rode the ferry back to the car to leave. Big mistake I should have caught!"
Arrange transportation. Rather than renting the van she would need to move her considerable crew ranging from kindergartener to college student, Jablecki makes use of free Disney-provided transportation. "It's a huge savings," she says. While anyone can ride the resort's extensive system of buses, boats and monorails, only those staying at a Disney-owned property can utilize Disney's Magical Express -- the company's complimentary airport shuttle and baggage delivery service. Thinking about renting a car? If you're staying at a remote resort, are perpetually in a hurry, or plan to make multiple stops on your central Florida vacation, it's probably best to do so.
Ask Mom. Talking to other parents who have been there and done that is another excellent resource for weighing your vacation options. Family Vacation Critic's Forums have discussions about Disney, where you can pose questions and search for information on everything from stroller options to character encounters.
Consider your family style. Prior to relocating to central Florida for her current job, Walt Disney World Social Media Manager Laura Spencer says that while her own laidback approach to theme park touring might be considered atypical, it always guaranteed her family plenty of quality time without the stress of a commando-style itinerary. "We would pick one to two things to do -- we didn't spend any more than 3 to 4 hours in the parks. Then, we'd go back to the resort and swim," says the self-described "pixie-dusted mom and wife." At night, Spencer's family would often enjoy a nice dinner at home at a Vacation Club resort. "We could have the great Disney experience and not be exhausted," she explains. "It really felt like a vacation."
Jablecki, an experienced organizer who has a knack for making a well-planned vacation seem like a walk in the park, employs a similar easy-going approach. She leaves her family's days at the theme parks largely unstructured -- and open to adventure -- save for a few critical details, which she maps out months in advance. "The only thing I know is which park I'm in on which day, and where I'm eating my one table service meal," she explains. "Beyond that, we leave it up to the magic and what the kids want to do. A little bit of planning really makes a difference. My son says every trip has gone so smoothly."
Plan a special experience. With so much to do at the theme parks, you might not think to add more to an itinerary (and a budget) that's already seemingly stretched to the max. But plan a unique experience, and you're sure to win some smiles, as well as the benefits of special memories and bragging rights back home. And after all, aren't these priceless prizes the whole point of a World tour? On each family visit, Jablecki likes to plan a special adventure for each child -- from a spin around a lake on a Sea Raycer or a Dolphins in Depth tour for her older children, to visits to Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique or The Pirates League for younger ones. For a multi-age crew seeking a memorable adventure, she recommends the Pirates and Pals Fireworks Voyage -- a visually explosive, yet child-friendly trip around the Seven Seas Lagoon. For best results, book experiences early -- advance windows vary from 90 to 180 days. Visit Tours and Experiences for details.
Capture the moment. If your family vacation albums typically feature loads of shots of the kids, but just a sad few images of youth and parents together, you'll appreciate this picture-perfecting scenario: At select locations throughout Walt Disney World Resort, Disney PhotoPass photographers get everyone in on the frame, then allow you to view, share and order photos online later (Warning: Photo editing can be a time-consuming process). Order Disney's PhotoCD prior to your visit, and save over 30 percent. You can even schedule a private portrait session with a PhotoPass photographer, who will meet you at your preferred Disney resort to capture new memories, or else update a formal family portrait. Call 407-934-4004 for details and pricing.
To find more specifics on the Disney destination of your choice, check out the following guides:
- Disney World Family Vacations
- Disney's Animal Kingdom Family Vacations
- Disney's Hollywood Studios Family Vacations
- Downtown Disney Family Vacations
- Magic Kingdom Family Vacations
Got advice of your own? Visit our Disney Forums and share your tips!