When heading to Walt Disney World, many of us start planning trips months in advance. However, sometimes there are last minute trip opportunities, which require a different type of planning. Namely, less planning. FlipKey.com has reported that average Walt Disney World vacationers spend 16 to 19 weeks planning their trips! If taking a last minute trip, you can’t fixate on the optimal time to take your trip, don’t have six months to make ADRs, you don’t have weeks to iterate on your daily schedule and touring plans, and you don’t have the time to deliberate on pricing and to wait for a deal to emerge.
Instead, like a Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat, you just have to pounce on what you can, wing it, and trust your instincts to make snap decisions when planning. Of course, there’s another resource you can use beyond your instincts: this blog post.
Let’s cover what you’ll have to get in order, what you can expect, and how you can make the most of a last minute trip.
This is where all of our last minute trip planning starts. Usually, it starts here because we found a great deal on accommodations (or airfare) for a certain date range and decide to book a last minute trip. Believe me, if the “free” Disney Dining Plan were suddenly announced tomorrow for value resorts during March, we’d probably have a trip booked tomorrow! Other times, we start by looking at accommodations simply to see whether a potential trip will even be possible. Since all of our last minute trips are occasioned by desire rather than business, airfare and hotel prices are threshold inquiries for us. If we don’t like the airfare and hotel prices, we simply don’t take the trip.
Business travelers and others don’t have that luxury. Fortunately, Disney has a huge inventory of hotel rooms, many of which are often unfilled, so chances are there will at least be something available. That’s the good news. The other good news is that there are usually hotel discounts available for Disney-owned hotels. The bad news is that every single hotel discount is for a range of dates and has a “book by” date attached to those dates. For example, if you’re planning a last minute trip on September 13 for a trip spanning September 28-30, and there is a 30% discount for stays August 30-October 2 if booked by September 10, you are out of luck. Unfortunately, Expedia and Priceline can’t help you out, because the discounts they get on Disney hotels are the same as the ones offered to the general public through DisneyWorld.com.
The only perpetual discount of which I’m aware is AAA, and the exact discount there varies. Most of the time it’s in the neighborhood of 10% off, but it does spike to more than that. If there is no general public discount, depending upon the AAA discount and how strongly you desire to stay in a Disney-owned hotel, it might be worth it for you to become an AAA member.
We prefer staying on property, so whenever we’ve been planning a last minute trip when no discounts were available, we simply stopped planning the trip. Of course, this won’t be an option for many of you. As much as we like staying on property, we have yet to find a single hotel that is “worth” Disney rack rate. We have yet to find a single one that is worth 10% off rack rate. Determination of value here will vary from person to person, but if you are traveling at a time when no discounts are offered on Disney hotels, we strongly suggest that you look beyond Disney hotels.
By way of another example, if I search today for a hotel stay this weekend, during a historically slow time in early February, not only would I be paying rack rate for whichever hotel I were to book, but no value resorts are even showing as available. Even assuming I could book a value resort, I’d be looking at paying over $100 per night! This is during the cheapest season of the year. Can you imagine paying over $175 for a room in a value resort during the Christmas season?!
Instead, use tools like Expedia, Hotwire, Priceline, and Hotel Tonight to score last minute deals on hotels in the Downtown Disney area or just off property. Hotwire and Priceline are the best options with their “blind buy” options (which will save the most). I’ve written in detail about how to use these services in our “Frugal Travel” article, so I won’t rehash tips on those services here. We regularly use those sites to book hotels for our non-Disney travels, and our savings typically exceed 50%. Much better than rack rate at a Disney hotel!
Airfare fluctuates based upon market conditions. Since a seat on a flight is a perishable commodity, sometimes last minute airfare will be cheaper than airfare booked months in advance. However, this is not normally the case. Airlines are pretty good at anticipating demand, and price fares and schedule routes accordingly.
To avoid getting scorched on last minute airfare price, we recommend checking out ITA Software, which searches every airline (except Southwest) based on parameters you input. If the prices you get at first aren’t appealing, consider expanding your search to include Sanford Airport (instead of just MCO) or other airports near you besides your “home” airport. If ITA has too many options or is confusing, use Expedia’s airfare search engine for a more user-friendly search of the airlines.
If prices are still too insane, consider driving if that’s feasible.
If you’re going to be renting a car, the same services that work for booking a hotel at the last minute work for rental cars. There are also corporate codes for booking rental cars and discounts through Costco available. We don’t rent a car at Disney and most other places we go have good public transportation, so it’s rare for us to rent a car. Our anecdotal experience has found the best last minute prices via Hotwire.com (look at their special value rates, listed first) and Costco, but your mileage may vary. If rental car prices are too expensive, just rely on Disney transportation. It can be a bit inefficient, but there are plenty of ways to get the most out of Disney transportation.
If you aren’t renting a car and are instead hoping to use Disney’s Magical Express for an on-site stay, don’t fret about those luggage tags. Call Disney’s Magical Express directly at 866-599-0951 and ask for them to be sent to you once you book your hotel. If you give Disney’s Magical Express about a week’s notice, chances are you can get your luggage tags. We’ve had them send the tags to us via Express Mail (at no charge) in only a couple days. I wouldn’t recommend trusting them to find your bags without tags, but that’s an option, too, if you give them your baggage claim tickets. If you don’t have checked bags, there’s even less cause for concern. You can simply walk up to the counter, have them look up your reservation, and have them print off Disney’s Magical Express passes for you. We’ve done this on numerous occasions for last minute trips, and it has never been an issue. Actually, it has proven faster than calling!
Dining is where Disney planners typically lose their cool when it comes to planning last minute trips. Many of you are probably used to making Advance Dining Reservations (ADRs) months in advance, and you’ve come to expect there to be no ADR availability a week before your trip.
Luckily, the days when many restaurants filled up months in advance is over. Options like Be Our Guest Restaurant still fill up far in advance, but even if you plan your ADRs a week in advance, most of the time you will have plenty of options. The notable exception to this is during the fall “Free Dining” promo period. Before impulsively booking a last minute “Free Dining” promotion, you definitely should check ADR availability.
Most of the year, last minute ADRs are no problem. As mentioned, this time of year is historically slow, so these numbers are probably not the same as what you’d find in June or July, but when attempting to make ADRs for dinner tomorrow, I have 62 options. I could eat at any of my favorite options, too! Yachtsman Steakhouse, Jiko, and The Hollywood Brown Derby all have availability! Only 12 restaurants don’t have availability, and while there are some good options on there (like California Grill and ‘Ohana) there’s nothing that doesn’t have a suitable “next best” alternative. Unless you have kids who absolutely “must” eat in Cinderella Castle. If that’s a deal-breaker, I can safely say you won’t be able to travel to Walt Disney World at the last minute as long as your kids are young. Everyone else should just be able to go with the flow, and pick another similar restaurant if their favorite is booked.
If ADRs are difficult to come by during your travel window, there are a few other options. You call the restaurant the day of or walk-up to the podium. This strategy is really underrated, we think. We have had a lot of success with this strategy even when there isn’t any availability online. We’re a party of 2, so we’re more likely to have success with this than a party of 12, but it’s worth a shot for anyone to try if in a pinch. The worst they can say is “no.”
You can also eat at restaurants that don’t accept reservations: counter service restaurants! Counter service dining at Walt Disney World isn’t all burgers and hot dogs, and if you choose some of the more interesting restaurants and dishes, counter service dining can be a really fun experience, and significantly cheaper than table service dining. There’s also one table service restaurant, Beaches & Cream, that doesn’t accept ADRs.
A final option is to eat at restaurants in the out-of-the-way Disney hotels (like Old Key West, Saratoga Springs, or Animal Kingdom Lodge), Swan & Dolphin, Downtown Disney, or even off-property. There are plenty of table service restaurants in the Orlando area and I highly doubt there’s any night of the year when all of them are completely booked.
Basically, doing a last minute trip from the perspective of dining just requires altering your expectations. There’s a good chance you won’t get into all of your favorite options, but there likely will be great alternatives. Give those a try instead!
We have Annual Passes so getting tickets at the last minute isn’t something we normally consider. If you don’t have Annual Passes, rather than paying gate-rates, if you have enough time (a little over a week before your trip), order tickets from Undercover Tourist. Undercover Tourist is one of the few Disney-authorized third party brokers, and you can save a sizable amount by purchasing tickets through them!
Some people chart out their entire Walt Disney World trips, spending months preparing the perfect spreadsheet to maximize their fun. Some people enjoy that, and there’s nothing wrong with having fun planning. However, most last minute trips don’t allow this level of granular spread-sheet work. You can still have a Touring Plan and do some advance planning, it’s just difficult to do high amounts of advance planning. Serious last minute advance planning will likely lead to stress.
I know it’s easier said than done, but our recommendation for daily itineraries for last minute trips is to simply “wing it.” Check out a crowd calendar if you want and make your ADRs based upon that, but otherwise, just go with the flow. Obviously, this isn’t for everyone, and some people hate the inefficiency it entails. If you’re one of those people, you might want to give serious thought to whether a last minute trip is even “worth it” for you. If trying to get things squared away at the last minute and going to Walt Disney World without much of a plan is going to cause you anxiety, why even bother? Last minute traveling isn’t for everyone, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
We have found that this type of traveling is for us, and the level of planning we now do before trips (even those we do schedule a reasonable amount of time in advance) is next to none. We usually figure out where we’ll end our day based upon park closing time (we always end our day at the park open latest), and then book an ADR for a restaurant in that park or in a hotel near that park. Everything else is done on a whim. We aren’t overly concerned with the number of attractions we do in a given day, so we generally don’t worry about crowd levels in the parks. We arrive early and use FastPass to avoid crowds, and those two things are usually sufficient for us to accomplish what we want. If there’s something that has a long line and no FastPass, we just skip it. Obviously, this strategy is not for everyone. We would have thought it unfathomable only a few years ago, but as we now visit Walt Disney World more often, the desire to “see it all” in a single trip has dissipated.
Beyond that, there’s not really much you need to know when planning a last minute trip. Last minute trips can be a lot of fun, and even if you typically start planning trips 18 months in advance, you can have a great time on a trip planned 18 days in advance (or less)! It’s all about your expectations and your willingness to go with the flow. Disney trips don’t require months of advance planning, and most last minute planning is actually pretty similar to early planning!
Have you ever done a last minute Walt Disney World trip? How was your experience? Would you recommend a last minute trip to others? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments!