Last Updated on August 25, 2023 by Happily Ever Park Hoppers
Ultimate Walt Disney World Resort Planning Guide
Planning a trip to the Walt Disney World Resort can be very overwhelming. But that’s why you’re here, right?
Believe it or not, there is a right and wrong way to take a Disney vacation. KIDDING! But there is a way to ruin a Disney vacation and that’s by poor planning. The first mistake you can make and ensure you’ll have a bad time at Disney, is to assume it’s like any other theme park… it’s not!
The Walt Disney World Resort is a HUGE piece of property. It is over 40 Square Miles (or roughly 25,000 Acres)!! In order to have a successful Walt Disney World Resort vacation, there is a little bit of planning that has to take place so you’ll be sure to have a fantastic time. I never like hearing that someone had a bad Disney vacation. So that’s why I’ve made it my mission to help others understand how to plan the most magical trip ever.
The DPS Way
1. Check your dates!
Before doing anything else, your very first step should be to check the Theme Park Reservation Availability. To enter any Walt Disney World Resort theme park, you must have a Park Reservation.
As you can see from the screen above, on certain days some; or all depending on when you’re going, parks may not be available. Because of this, you will want to make sure before booking your trip that there are parks available for all or most of your travel dates. **More details down below
Once you’ve checked your travel dates and know when you want to go, you then need to decide where you are going to stay. Staying On-Property at a Disney Resort hotel comes with several benefits that can greatly improve your trip. However, staying Off-Property at a Good Neighbor hotel, timeshare, or even an Airbnb can give you a lot more options, help you stay on budget and maybe even enjoy some other local attractions.
Personally, I prefer to stay at a Disney Resort hotel so that way I can be close to all of the theme parks, take advantage of all the benefits of being a Disney Resort hotel Guest, and really immerse myself in the “Disney Bubble”. I also like staying On-Property because we always like to head back to the resort around Noon-1pm. Taking a mid-day break is a must for my family. It is hot in Florida almost all year round. If you hit the park right when it opened, by Noon time your kids are most likely hot, tired and ready for a nap (and you probably are too). Heading back to the resort for a nap, swim, cool off and resting your feet will help you so much in the long run. You’ll return to the parks refreshed and your little ones won’t be spent come 4pm.
I like to tell first-time guests, it’s all about location, location, location. As I said before, the Walt Disney World Resort is massive. Getting to and from the parks can be a lot of time out of your day, especially if you’re staying somewhere that the shuttle busses only run every couple of hours.
And don’t automatically assume that staying at a Disney Resort hotel is out of your price range. Always remember to check out the Special Offers page to see if there are any promotions for your travel dates. Also, know that the Disney Resorts Collection is broken down into multiple categories to fit all types of budgets (Campgrounds, Value, Moderate, Deluxe & Deluxe Villas).
An important planning tip! When weighing your options of where to stay, know that when you book a package from Disney directly (hotel & tickets) you will only need to make a deposit to secure your package. Whereas if you are staying Off Property and buying your tickets separately, you will have to pay in full, for the tickets up front. **NOTE: There are a few select Non Disney Owned Resort hotels that you can book through the Disney Other Hotels page and just pay a deposit. Another option is to stay at a Good Neighbor Hotel and call to book a Room & Ticket reservation and you might be able to book with just a deposit.
3. Park Tickets / Length of Stay
Your next step is to purchase your Park Tickets. If you are staying at a Disney Resort hotel, you will most likely do this all at once. But you should have an idea of how many park days you plan on doing. When you go to finalize your Disney Resort hotel reservation, you will be brought to a screen where you can add on your Park Tickets, Park Hopper options, Water Park & Sports option, or the Park Hopper Plus option. Ticket prices are also priced based on the time of year and the number of tickets you buy. Meaning, the price per day is less with the more park days you buy and/or certain times of the year like holidays, 3-day weekend and school vacation weeks will always cost more.
If you are staying Off-Property you will be able to purchase your tickets separately. You will have the same ticket options as if you stayed at a Disney Resort hotel, you will just have to go to the Disney World Theme Park Tickets page to purchase them.
When considering how many park days you are going to do, if you’ll get hopper tickets and if you will be purchasing Disney Genie+, also think about how long you are going to be there. If you are staying 5 nights and not going into the parks on your arrival/departure days, you will most likely buy a 4-Day Ticket. But if you are staying say 6 or 7 nights, you may decide to do a resort day and then you’d only buy a 4 or 5-Day Ticket. Planning for a resort day is something my family always does. So keep that in mind when you are selecting how many park days you want.
Now that you have your Park Tickets, you can make your Theme Park Reservations. As I said earlier, in order to enter any of the four theme parks you must make a Park Reservation. You can only make Park Reservations after you’ve purchased your Park Tickets. There is no time frame or reservation window. Meaning, you can make your Park Reservations at ANY TIME, so long as you have your Park Tickets. If you are planning on going during the holidays, school breaks, three-day weekends, or over the summer, it is best to buy your tickets as early as you can. These are the dates that book up the fastest.
For more information on how to make Park Reservations and my tips go to the Park Reservations post.
Other reservations you will want to make are your Advance Dining Reservations or ADR. Advance Dining Reservations are dining reservations that can be made 60 Days in advance. There are some extremely popular table service restaurants at Walt Disney World Resort. Ones that you will definitely need a reservation for. It is important to know when your ADR window is. If you are staying at a Disney Resort hotel, you will be able to make your ADRs for the length of your trip (or up to 10 days) 60 Days in advance of your check-in date. If you are staying off property, you will need to make your reservations each day when it’s 60 Days out. For example: if you are checking in on January 1st, 2022, and staying off property, you would make your first ADR on November 2, 2021. Then on November 3rd, you could make your ADR for January 2nd, November 4th for January 3rd, and so on and so forth.
You can also make reservations for some fun experiences like building your own Droid at the Droid Depot at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. And you can pick up some “scrap metal” at Savi’s Workshop to assemble your very own custom Lightsaber. Both of these can be booked 60 Days in advance.
There are a few other things to consider adding on to add that extra dash of pixie dust. All of these are completely optional but do serve their purpose.
- Memory Maker
- Unlimited downloads of pictures from Disney PhotoPass photographers, ride photos as well as Magic Shots.
- Special Events Tickets
- Additional Hard Ticketed Event for events like Disney After Hours, Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party or Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party
- Disney Genie+
- A paid add-on service that allows you to make bookings for a specific attraction’s Lightning Lane so you can skip the standby line. For full details and an easy explanation of this new service, check out my helpful Disney Genie post.
If you are traveling to the Walt Disney World Resort for the first time or it’s been a while since you last visited, something I always tell people is to be sure to familiarize yourself with all the different modes of transportation. Not just to and from your resort and the parks, but if you are park hopping, how to travel between parks. It’s good to know what all your transportation options are. You can find all my helpful tips and information on the Getting around Walt Disney World post.
Something to keep in mind and plan for is your airport transportation. Beginning January 1st, 2022 Disney’s Magical Express will no longer be transporting Disney Resort hotel Guests to their resorts for free. So this means you will need to find and book your own shuttle service from the airport to your resort. If you are flying in/out of the Orlando International Airport you can check out the MCO Parking & Transportation page. To jump to the Mears Shuttle page click HERE.
7. Budgeting & Packing
In the time leading up to your trip it is good to have a budgeting strategy. At this point in your planning journey you should have an idea of how much everything is going to cost. Once you have priced out your hotel, tickets, airfare/car rental/gas, anticipated food cost, you will know how much this trip is going to cost. Will you be saving up in the months ahead of your trip? Are you planning on using a credit card and paying it off over time? Maybe you have some airline miles that you can use and avoid paying for airfare all together. It is good to have a budgeting plan.
As the countdown is reaching the single digits, that’s when the excitement and anticipation really starts to ramp up. I like to use a Packing List to keep me organized. This way I don’t forget anything. If this is your first trip to the Walt Disney World Resort, there might be a lot of things you didn’t know you should have packed or that you could even bring to the parks. Be sure to check out the Planning & Packing post for all my planning, budgeting and packing tips!
Another experience that can really enhance your Disney vacation is to book one of the several Character Dining restaurants. Character dining options are a great way to be able to meet some of your favorite Disney characters. Each location offers a different variety of food and different meal options (so make sure the meal you’re booking has characters for that meal, because not all locations have characters for every meal). Every location also will have different characters or a different variation of characters. For example: at Chef Mickey’s you’ll meet Mickey in his chef’s outfit, whereas at Tusker House Restaurant, Mickey is in his safari outfit.
Again, every restaurant is different. Some locations offer a buffet, while others are “family style”; which is when platters of food are brought out for the entire table. Family style restaurants are “all-you-care-to-enjoy”, so if there is something you want more of, all you have to do is ask. And then, there are a couple options that are Pre-Fixe menus. They are all priced PER PERSON. All are broken into (2) pricing categories: Kids 3-9 and Adults 10+. If you have kids who are considered “adults” for meal pricing, I suggest you do a late lunch (for the breakfast character dining) or an early dinner and go on empty stomachs. That way having a meal in the middle of the day it will most likely hold your family over and only need a snack or something light later in the day.
If you are traveling with little ones; which you most likely are, you will want to make sure you take a look at each attraction’s height requirements. There are many, many rides for children of all ages, thrill levels, and heights.
Whether you’re on the My Disney Experience app or on the desktop site, you can see what rides are “any height” or what the height requirements are. It’s best to know how tall your kids are before your trip. It can be very upsetting to little ones who go up to a ride thinking they are going to be able to ride and they’re told no. Even if they are just barely under the requirement, they will not be able to ride.
If you have little ones who aren’t tall enough or maybe someone that doesn’t do rollercoasters, that doesn’t mean someone has to miss out. Rider Switch allows your party to have one adult that waits with the non-rider(s) while the rest of your party goes on the ride. Then when the first group is done riding, the adults that rode “switch” with the waiting adult(s). Now, the adult that was waiting gets a turn to ride and skip the regular standby line and ride. This allows each parent/family member to be able to ride with each other or a child (so some people in your party will get to ride twice!)
*Note that if the waiting adult waited alone with the non-riders, other adults may or may not be able to ride again. To use this feature, approach the entrance of the ride with your entire party and ask a Cast Member if they can issue a Rider Switch. The waiting adult(s) will then be issued the entitlement and the first group gets in line.
10. Park Priorities
One last tip is to know what your priorities are. Are you trying to see and do everything? Are you wanting to eat all the snacks? Do you want to take it easy, sleep in and relax by the pool and get to the parks when you get there? Or is there a ride you have to ride? It’s definitely helpful to have an idea of what you want to do.
If you are someone who wants to maximize your time, you should definitely consider Rope Dropping. “Rope Drop” is a term that means entering a park before or at the posted park opening time. And the Cast Members literally hold a rope at the entrance of every land and either remove the rope or walk guests into the land (to deter guests from running). The benefit of rope dropping is that this is when the wait times are at their lowest. Within the first hour that the park is open, you might be able to get on 2-4 rides. This is dependent on how early you get to the park before park opening and what rides you choose.
Another way to maximize your time in the parks is to take advantage of Early Theme Park Entry & Extended Evening Hours. Early Theme Park Entry allows Disney Resort hotel Guests to enter any of the four theme parks 30 Minutes before the posted park opening hours. You can expect this time to have low wait times and smaller crowds. Same thing with Extended Evening Hours. The only difference with Extended Evening Hours is that it’s on select nights at Magic Kingdom Park and Epcot. Note that Extended Evening Hours is just for Disney Deluxe Resorts Guests, Disney Deluxe Villas Guests, Walt Disney World Swan, Dolphin & Reserve, and Shades of Green Resort.
If you are someone who wants to take it easy and sleep in, taking advantage of the Extended Evening Hours would definitely bode well for you. You can also consider purchasing the new Disney Genie+ add-on service so you can go at your own pace but still avoid super long wait times. Another great thing to do on a slower-paced trip is to visit Disney Springs or Disney’s Boardwalk. At Disney Springs you can shop, eat, play or catch some entertainment. The opportunities are endless! At Disney’s Boardwalk, you can enjoy a fun Piano Bar at Jellyrolls or dance the night away at the Atlantic Dance Club. There are also places to eat, drink and even play some fun arcade games.
Now all that’s left is to go and enjoy the magic! I hope you have a wonderful time visiting The Most Magical Place on Earth. If you find that you still have a question, please drop a comment below.
Spreading magic one post at a timeKristin