Planning your 2013 trip to Walt Disney World can be intimidating, especially for first-time visitors. There are four theme parks, dozens of hotels, hundreds of restaurants, and a variety of additional entertainment activities and options that can really complicate planning. Plus, Walt Disney World is a busy place, so determining when to visit and how to tour the parks to avoid crowds is a critical step in the process, especially for first-time or infrequent guests who want to plan a memorable trip.
If you’re feeling yourself being sucked into the rabbit hole that is Walt Disney World vacation planning, you’re in luck, as this guide will assist you. Think of it as Walt Disney World Trip Planning 101. As complicated as the process might seem right now, it’s really not that bad, and the ultimate payoff will be huge. You’re also a bit fortunate that you’re being sucked into the rabbit hole, as many first-time visitors don’t realize Walt Disney World planning can be so complicated! (After all, the commercials make it look like a carefree world where everyone runs around holding hands with Mickey Mouse while laughing and riding all of their favorite attractions without any problems!)
Even after dozens of trips to Walt Disney World, we still don’t know everything there is to know about the place, but this post contains most of what we do know (the relevant stuff, at least…we’ll spare you random trivia and our geeky useless knowledge). Obviously, we wouldn’t visit so much if we didn’t like it, so our opinions are colored by the fact that we are Disney fans. That said, we don’t see the world through rose colored glasses, and we think there’s plenty Disney does do wrong. We try to stay as objective as possible here, so in addition to cut-and-dry facts, expect to read both critical and positive opinions on the aspects of Walt Disney World being discussed. If that’s not for you, there are plenty of other planning sites that offer only positive or only negative spins on Disney.
This page is designed as a jumping off point to give you some general background information on each aspect of your trip, with links to some of our posts that offer much more detailed information.
The first question arguably has the biggest impact on the trip. Walt Disney World can be a crowded place, and the time of year you visit can have a dramatic impact on crowd density and the wait times you encounter for attractions. If you have kids in school and aren’t willing to pull them from school, you’re looking at visiting during school breaks, which is when the parks are busiest due to the vast majority of Walt Disney World guests being in the same circumstances. The week (or so) long breaks are absolutely the worst in terms of crowds. Relatively speaking, summer isn’t as bad, since summer vacation is a longer period of time, so not everyone with kids “must” visit during the same week or two. That’s the upside. Hot, humid weather is the downside. That, and crowds are still pretty bad as compared with times of year when school is in session. If you’re traveling with kids, you’ll want to read our Walt Disney World Trip Planning with Kids guide in addition to this post.
If you’re not traveling with kids or don’t mind pulling them from school, the first thing you want to do when planning is to eliminate any days when school is out of session. The early fall, December prior to Christmas vacation, and mid-January through early March are all good times to visit from the perspective of crowds. We have more thorough tips regarding when to visit on our When to Visit Walt Disney World page, which takes into account school schedules, crowds, weather, park hours, and special events. Check it out for more detailed information!
Of the considerations on that page, special events at Walt Disney World should be your next biggest factor when determining when to visit Walt Disney World. Visit our Walt Disney World Seasonal Events page to view the list of major events around which you might want to plan. Christmas, Halloween, Star Wars Weekends, Flower & Garden Festival, and Food & Wine Festival are the big five as far as these events are concerned. Click on each seasonal event for our guide to that event to see whether it’s enough of a draw for you to plan around. Our favorite, by far, is Christmas at Walt Disney World. All four parks get decked out for Christmas, Cinderella Castle looks breathtaking with icicle lights, and there’s some seasonal entertainment.
How long you should stay at Walt Disney World depends largely upon the type of trip it is. If you’re not much of a Disney fan but are taking your kids on a “once in a lifetime” rite of passage trip, how long you should stay is dramatically different from how long a Disney fan who visits twice a year should stay for a Food & Wine Festival trip.
If you’re a frequent visitor, you probably know what length of a trip is right for you, so let’s assume you’re a first time visitor. For the first time visitor, we recommend a trip of 6 to 8 days. The exact length will still vary a bit depending upon how much vacation time you have and if you plan on visiting non-Disney theme parks or destinations.
Walt Disney World has four theme parks, each of which a first timer should spend at least one day experiencing. Arguably, Magic Kingdom and Epcot could each take two days, whereas Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disney’s Animal Kingdom could each take a little less than a day each. If you park hop, which we recommend doing mainly to maximize your time in the parks since some parks open or close earlier than others, and want to experience most attractions, 5 days for the 4 theme parks is a good number. If you go at a whirlwind pace or cut things from the itinerary, you could do the parks in as few as 3 days; if you take your time and go at a slow pace, the sky is the limit on how many days it could take you.
Beyond the theme parks, there’s a lot to do at Walt Disney World. There’s Downtown Disney, golf, restaurants, water parks, and a lot of “other stuff” outside the theme parks. You will probably find at least another day of “other stuff” you want to do and/or will want to spend a day in the middle of your trip relaxing at your hotel. This gets you in the 6-8 day range.
The next four steps are in no particular order. Actually, before purchasing any of these elements, you should contemplate all of them and what works best for your party. This is because these elements often come packaged together, and booking one before considering the others can foreclose your package options and force you to purchase everything individually.
For finding cheap airfare, we recommend ITA Software by Google. You can’t book through ITA, but it’s the most robust airfare search engine out there. It gives you latitude in choosing multiple airports to see if nearby airports might offer better pricing, and allows you to check out a calendar of dates for travel, among other things.
Expedia is another option for a flight search engine, and many people prefer it because it still searches multiple airlines, but has a simpler interface and allows for immediate booking, as well as their “Best Price Guarantee.”
If you’re not booking a trip for set dates but are willing to travel whenever a deal pops up, another great option is Airfarewatchdog. You can signup for their deal alerts for trips between two cities. We opt for their daily email, which provides listings for the cheapest future airfare to numerous destinations departing out of our home airport. Thanks to this, we’ve recently booked ridiculously low flights to Atlanta and Washington, D.C. We use Airefarewatchdog a lot when planning last minute trips.
The other aspect of transportation you’ll want to figure out is rental cars. If you’re visiting other destinations outside of Walt Disney World or are staying at an off-site hotel, a rental car is pretty much a must. If you’re only doing Walt Disney World and are staying in an on-site hotel, Disney will provide complimentary transportation everywhere you need to go. Some people complain about the inefficiency of this transportation, but we really like it, and have assembled Walt Disney World transportation tips to help make it as efficient as possible for you. We always rely on Disney transportation rather than renting a car when visiting Walt Disney World, but rental cars do offer more freedom.
If booking a rental car for other trips, we typically find that the best prices are available via Hotwire.com and Costco, but we only rent cars a few times each year, so our experience is relatively limited.
The most popular direct-from-Disney vacation packages cover some combination of hotel, park tickets, and dining. Sometimes these packages offer excellent savings off rack rates, sometimes they’re merely full price elements of the trip bundled together. We have rated the various Walt Disney World discounts, many of which involve a package.
Most travel agents specializing in Disney are “no fee” agencies, meaning that it costs you no more to book through them than it does to book through Disney (they get their cut from Disney). If you are unsure of what package might be best for you–or need personalized help with any aspect of your trip–we highly recommend contacting an “Authorized Disney Vacation Planner” (those are the magic words to look for) and having them help you.
Worth noting is that even though you can save a lot with these packages, you’re saving that off Walt Disney World’s somewhat inflated on-site pricing. We believe it’s worth it to pay a premium for the “Disney Difference” and location, but we are huge Disney fans. If you’re not a Disney fan, it may not matter as much to you. If your main criteria is to visit Walt Disney World inexpensively, you might want to look beyond the on-site packages Disney puts together.
An alternative that is worth considering to save more money is booking a package through Expedia or Travelocity. Expedia offers a number of discounted vacation packages, but to get the best discounts, you need to bundle multiple aspects of your trip together. If using Expedia, look at the “Book together and save” amount saved before booking.
The threshold question here is “on-site or off-site?” This means, should you stay on Walt Disney World property in a Disney-owned hotel, or stay in a non-Disney owned hotel within driving distance of Walt Disney World. A lot of serious Disney fans think it’s an issue of staying in a nice, well-themed Disney hotel or slumming it in a $30/night crack den down on I-4, but this isn’t the case. There are a number of luxurious non-Disney hotels in Orlando, and there are Disney-owned hotels that aren’t exactly 5-star accommodations.
In general, you get more bang for your buck when staying in an off-site hotel, as there are a lot of competing non-Disney hotels competing with one another, and they can’t charge the premium Disney charges for its name recognition or location. Conversely, non-Disney hotels are typically farther away from the parks, and don’t provide the same immersive vacation experience that many people describe as being in the “Disney bubble.” In other words, the real world will creep into your Walt Disney World vacation if staying off-site, whereas staying on-site will (excuse the terrible cliche) keep you in fantasyland, and your entire trip will be a pleasant escape from reality.
We always stay on-site, even if that means paying more for accommodations that offer less than comparable off-site accommodations. There is truly something to be said for the “Disney bubble,” and it’s one of those things you shouldn’t dismiss until you’ve tried it, especially if the trip is for the sake of your kids.
If you plan on staying on-site, you’ll want to know which hotel tier is right for your family, and which specific hotel within that tier is right for your party. The three main tiers are Value, Moderate, and Deluxe, which are exactly what their names sound like they are. There’s also a Deluxe Villa tier, which is basically Disney-speak for “timeshare room.” We’ve compared and contrasted Value and Moderate Resorts, but have yet to do the same for Moderate and Deluxe Resorts. If money is of little issue or you will spend a lot of time at your hotel, you should give serious thought to a Deluxe Resort. If not, we think your finite vacation dollars are probably better on dining or improving other aspects of your trip.
Once you determine which tier is right for you, check out our Walt Disney World resort-hotel reviews. We also have ranked our favorite Moderate Resorts and Deluxe Villa Resorts (also called Disney Vacation Club resorts). We have yet to rank Value Resorts and Deluxe Resorts as we have yet to stay in them all, but of the ones at which we’ve stayed, our favorite Value Resort is Pop Century, and our favorite Deluxe Resorts are Disney’s Beach Club Resort and Disney’s Boardwalk Inn.
However, if you’re only visiting Walt Disney World because you think it’s an important rite of passage for your kids, but you otherwise can’t tolerate more than 8 hours per day of Disney “magic,” you might stay off-site or in one of the non-Disney hotels that are technically on-property. For booking these hotels, use tools like Priceline and Hotwire.com to score substantial discounts on rooms at “unknown” hotels. With both services, you can determine the quality of the accommodations in advance, and most of the time you can narrow down the location pretty well, too. We use Hotwire and Priceline when booking stays when we travel to “real world” spots and we save a ton of money. We also use the Hotel Tonight app to scout deals on both luxury accommodations in larger cities…we’ve yet to book anything through it, but it’s a good app to have. You can travel frugally to Walt Disney World by using these services.
If you book a package, you may not have a ton of say over which park tickets you purchase. Assuming you have complete autonomy, we recommend purchasing tickets for for the full length of your stay or possibly one less day than your entire stay. As we wrote above in the “How Long to Stay” section, you’ll want to spend a couple of days outside the park. Despite this, it’s nice to have tickets that give you the option to visit every day of your trip. This gives you the option of spending part of the day relaxing at your hotel or visiting Downtown Disney, and spending part of it in the parks.
It might seem like this is a waste of money on expensive additional days that you wouldn’t necessarily need to use if you planned better. And it sort of is. Single-day Walt Disney World tickets are quite pricey, but multi-day tickets are much cheaper per day. The incremental cost of additional days on a ticket is low, as this low cost is a “hook” Disney uses to get people to stay at Walt Disney World, rather than spending a couple of days in the Disney parks before wandering off to Universal, SeaWorld, etc. In fact, the price difference between a 3-day Walt Disney World ticket and a 10-day Walt Disney World ticket is less than the cost of a 1-day Walt Disney World ticket! Each additional day ends up being around $10, which is a negligible cost for most visitors. It’s because of this that we recommend having tickets for every day that you’re at Walt Disney World.
Unless you have small children who are can’t spend more than a few hours each day in the parks, we also recommend adding on the “Park Hopper” option to your tickets, which allows you to visit multiple parks in the same day. This allows you to make changes to your itinerary on the fly based on crowdedness, and also allows you to visit another park after the first one you’re visiting closes for the day (Disney’s Animal Kingdom often closes at 5 pm, and that same night Magic Kingdom might be open until midnight!). It also allows you to always end your night in the park with evening Extra Magic Hours. We love being in the parks for Extra Magic Hours, but we don’t have young kids–Extra Magic Hours may not appeal to you as much if you do.
There are also a number of ways you can save money on Walt Disney World park tickets. We highly recommend Undercover Tourist, which is a Disney-authorized discount ticket seller for multi-day tickets. Whatever you do, don’t wait to buy your tickets at the front gates of the parks (or on eBay…they won’t work!).
A lot of the posts on this blog detail dining at Walt Disney World, which is a surprisingly complex (and fun!) topic. The most important thing for first-timers to know is that the tired stereotype that Disney dining is all burgers, hot dogs, and other fast food is not even remotely true. Disney has a lot of wonderful dining options that can be an experience in themselves. Once you get past that stereotype, you open a world of possibilities for your meals at Walt Disney World. We have a page filled with our Disney restaurant reviews and other resources for choosing where to eat. Good dining can totally make a trip (and bad dining can break a trip), so if you only read more on one topic in this guide, make it dining. There’s a lot to cover, but it’s well worth it. We know a number of people who have had their opinions of Walt Disney World changed for the better simply because they “discovered” the right places to eat.
Once you start salivating over all of the places to eat, you need to consider whether you should add-on the Disney Dining Plan. From time to time, the Disney Dining Plan is included for “free” as a promotion in vacation packages, and this promotion is by far the most popular with Disney visitors. If free dining is being offered during your visit, give it some serious thought. If you do book the Disney Dining Plan, make sure to make Advance Dining Reservations (ADRs). Some popular restaurants fill up in advance, and without ADRs, you might not be able to utilize the Dining Plan to its fullest.
Your imagination is really the limit here. Most first-time visitors only know about the theme parks, Downtown Disney, and the water parks. That’s just the surface of what Walt Disney World has to offer. There are tours, golf, fishing, nightlife, shopping, fireworks cruises, babysitting, spas, and much more. An exhaustive list would ultimately be longer than the rest of this already long blog post!
Most of our favorite things are couples or adult-oriented, which you can read about on our Walt Disney World for Adults page.
There are just as many (if not more) special experiences available for families. If you want to add on something in addition to the “normal” experiences, we recommend contacting an Authorized Disney Vacation Planner (as mentioned above in the “Booking a Package” section) and seeing what they recommend. Or, you can post a question in the comments here and we’ll recommend something!
Planning an itinerary is a big deal, even for some frequent Walt Disney World guests. Some people create binders, spreadsheets, and schedule every step of their day. People get serious and obsessive about this. As mentioned above, Walt Disney World can be a crowded place with some really long lines. Having an itinerary, even a loose one, is important for first-time visitors. Doing things inefficiently can mean a lot more time spent in lines or having to skip attractions completely if lines are too long. Since we visit regularly, this doesn’t matter much to us and we don’t plan an itinerary–if an attraction has a long line, we simply skip it and do it on our next visit.
When we first started visiting Walt Disney World, having a solid itinerary did matter to us, and we used TouringPlans.com for this. TouringPlans is a subscription-based website that offers a wait times app, step by step plans for visiting attractions, and a crowd calendar for picking the best days to visit. I now work for TouringPlans, so you might think my opinions are a bit biased on this. If so, do some independent research–you’ll find numerous other sites also recommending TouringPlans. If you’re more “old school,” you might prefer a tangible book, like The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, to plan your itinerary.
If you’re not going to use a service like TouringPlans and you don’t want to buy a book, the most important things to know are how to use FastPass, which is a free ride-reservation system allowing you to “reserve” a slot in advance to skip most of the line at select attractions, effectively and to arrive at the parks just before they open. Arriving at the parks early is self-explanatory (with this you’ll also want to know which attractions have the longest wait times…there’s no use going early to avoid the crowds only to hit attractions that rarely have long waits), but FastPass can be confusing, which causes a lot of people to simply not use it. Read up on it, and make sure you get as many FastPasses as you are able each day. Simply using the FastPass system efficiently can provide enough of an itinerary for many people.
As far as which attractions to do, we have our own beliefs about which attractions are good, bad, underrated, and overrated, but we really recommend trying your best to experience every attraction that seems like it might appeal to the age-demographics in your party (if you’re all adults, you can probably safely skip things like Disney Junior). We like a lot of attractions that are unpopular with the general public, and you might like or dislike those same attractions. Don’t substitute someone else’s judgment for your own when it comes to attractions. Unlike restaurants or hotels, you’re not really out anything if you try an attraction that you end up not liking (except time). So try as much as you can and go in with an open mind!
With all of the rest of the planning that you’re doing, we strongly recommend first-time visitors do not adopt our practice of “winging it” for your daily itinerary. You don’t need to plan every movement so that there’s no spontaneity in your trip, just make sure you have at least a loose plan of what you’re going to do.
Once you have all the details set, the last thing you need to do before your trip is pack your bags! Packing for Walt Disney World is pretty comparable to packing for any trip you might take, but there are some things wrinkles to Walt Disney World that might make packing a bit different. Check out our Walt Disney World Packing List for tips on unique items to bring to improve your stay. In addition to those things, you might also want to bring some pins for Disney Pin Trading.
Since a Walt Disney World trip will be (for many of you) a memorable experience for your kids that you’ll want to cherish, getting good photos is also important. To read about the equipment I used to capture the photos on this page, read our Photography Gear Reviews page and our tips for good vacation photos. Alternatively, if you are contemplating letting Disney’s roaming photographers around the parks take photos for you, read our review of PhotoPass+.
Compared to the rest of the Walt Disney World trip planning you’ll want to do, packing is a cinch!
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If you are a Walt Disney World veteran, what tips would you add to this? Which would you emphasize, and with which do you disagree? If you’re a first-timer, is there anything else you’d like to know? Chances are if you have questions still, so does someone else! Please share your thoughts in the comments.