Our Walt Disney World vacation planning guide offers tips, tricks & info on how to save money & time, avoid crowds, where to eat, best rides, and itineraries for Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Animal Kingdom & Hollywood Studios. It’s a great resource whether you’re a first-timer or Annual Passholder, written by Florida locals who visit and refresh this regularly. (Updated January 2, 2021.)
As you’re no doubt aware, Walt Disney World’s theme parks and many resorts have reopened after being closed for several months. As you’re also likely aware, a lot has changed. So much, in fact, that much of this Walt Disney World planning guide is inaccurate right now. If you’re traveling now through March 2021, consult our “Temporary Abnormal” Guide to Walt Disney World.
Walt Disney World is already in the process of returning to its previous policies and practices. (To that point, Park Hopping returned yesterday and more resorts reopen soon.) That’s going to be a gradual process, likely continuing through September 2021. We are visiting regularly and monitoring closely for updates–if you want notification as things continue to evolve, change, and return to normal, sign up to receive our FREE Walt Disney World Email Newsletter.
Suffice to say, if you’re planning a trip to Walt Disney World in early 2021, this planning guide will contain a lot of near-term inaccuracies as Walt Disney World has suspended, cancelled, or temporarily changed a lot. However, if you’re visiting in Summer 2021 or beyond, the info and advice here should be closer to accurate.
Of course, no one knows what the future holds. There is so much uncertainty right now, to the point that it’s difficult to predict what next month will look like, let alone April 2021. Things could begin returning to normal by Spring 2021…or not be back to normal by October 2021.
Right now, we know that Walt Disney World is still preparing for its 50th Anniversary celebration beginning on October 1, 2021. Internally, that’s the target date for resuming normalcy, which is why the latest end date on all of the “temporary abnormal” policies is September 26, 2021. That’s the beginning of the week leading up to the 50th Anniversary.
That’s not to say all of the policy changes will remain until September 26, 2021–Walt Disney World will aim to roll things back to normal as soon as possible, ideally before then. If you’re looking for everything new and coming soon to Walt Disney World, consult our What’s New & Next at Walt Disney World for 2021.
With those caveats out of the way, let’s tell you about ourselves and why this guide is useful to your trip planning. We are obviously big Disney fans, but with this guide, we share our objective and unbiased tips. This covers the good and the bad, and the hard realities of planning Walt Disney World trip. We don’t sugarcoat everything or feel the need to put a positive spin on things. A lot about Disney is great, but that’s plenty that’s overpriced and not-so-great. If blunt, honest advice is not for you, there are many other sites that are all-positive.
With hundreds of trips dating back to the 1980s when we were kids, we’ve learned a lot about all things Disney. We’re now Florida residents who live close enough to hear the fireworks at night (well, before all of this), and we visit multiple times per week to see what has changed, taste-test new menu items, analyze crowds, offer recommendations for things you should do on vacation, share updates on construction, and much more.
This guide distills the key things we know about Walt Disney World into something easy to absorb and less overwhelming. Think of this planning guide as WDW101, with everything organized into the most important aspects of planning. The reality is that Walt Disney World is one of the most complicated vacation destinations on earth, and having a smooth and good trip requires doing your homework. With that said, we promise that taking the time to learn about Walt Disney World will be worth it, so let’s get started…
1. When to Visit
This is often the first question readers ask, and it’s not an easy one to answer. If you’re primarily concerned about wait times, we’d highly recommend consulting our Walt Disney World Crowd Calendars: When to Visit & Avoid. That takes into account Orlando area school schedules, conventions, youth sporting events, park hours, special events, and so much more to provide you with specific dates that are the least and most crowded.
While that’s all about crowds (and can be overwhelming), we also have something more holistic: our Best and Worst Months to Visit Walt Disney World. That ranks every month of the year, and recommends the 3 very best weeks of the year to visit.
Rather than our objective crowd calendars, those are our subjective picks for when to visit. In addition to wait times, those rankings take other things into account: seasonal offerings like Christmas & Halloween, weather, new attractions, and more. If you find the crowd calendars intimidating, go with the Best & Worst Months post instead.
If you’ve determined what year you want to head to Walt Disney World, the next, related question is what time of year. The first thing to consider is discounts. The most popular of these is the 2021 Free Disney Dining Plan at Walt Disney World promotion.
Not able to take advantage of Free Dining? If you want to save even more money and do WDW as cheaply as possible, we have the 10 Best Tips to Save Money at Walt Disney World. Those tips cover a lot of excellent ideas, such as Renting DVC Points, or buying discount Disney gift cards, or even having Groceries Delivered to Your Walt Disney World Hotel Room. Those are just a handful of ways to save a ton of money on a trip to WDW!
If you’re thinking of a November or December vacation, start by reading our Ultimate Guide to Christmas at Walt Disney World. There’s soooo much happening during the holidays that it’s simply too much to list here. Every park, resort, and Disney Springs gets into the spirit of the season. Our favorite thing is the Magic Kingdom’s special event–read about it in our Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party Review & Tips.
From late August until the end of October, you have special events in Epcot and Magic Kingdom, plus Halloween decorations. Read our Guide to the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival to prepare for that park’s colossal celebration or our Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party Review & Tips for thoughts on that. The downside to these months, particularly August and September, is weather. (The upside is low crowds!)
This just scratches the surface. You can see everything that happens throughout the year in our Calendar of Seasonal Events at Walt Disney World. Finally, before solidifying your travel dates, you’ll also want to check out our Walt Disney World Refurbishment Calendar to make sure any must-do attractions won’t be closed for renovations during your visit.
2. How Long to Visit
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, we recommend a Walt Disney World vacation of at least 6 or 7 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.
In addition to visiting Disney’s theme parks, you’ll also probably want to build a day into your itinerary for relaxation, and this is good to plug into the middle of your trip so you don’t get worn out by the theme parks. The other consideration for planning trips to Walt Disney World might be how much time to spend doing other things.
You might want to do Orlando-area theme parks like Universal, SeaWorld, or Busch Gardens. Maybe you want to visit the beach, outlet malls, or other points of interest. If you’re looking for other things to do, check out our 50 Things to Do in Orlando, Florida (Outside Disney’s Parks).
We recommend 1-2 days at Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure; use our Universal Orlando Resort Trip Planning Guide for strategy. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (Diagon Alley area in Universal Studios Florida and Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure) is absolutely mind-blowing, even if you’re not a Harry Potter fan. We also have a post titled Walt Disney World v. Universal Orlando that covers a lot of the pros and cons of visiting Universal.
3. Park Tickets
We recommend buying your tickets from an authorized third party ticket seller to save money. Read our Tips for Buying Discount Walt Disney World Tickets post for everything you need to know about choosing the right tickets and saving money on them.
If all you want to know is where to safely buy the cheapest, legitimate Walt Disney World multi-day tickets from an authorized reseller click here to buy via Get Away Today, our recommended & Disney-authorized ticket seller. You can save an extra $5 per ticket with discount code DTB5 at check-out. In total, that’s up to $79 off multi-day tickets with their deals and that coupon.
Disney’s mantra is “the longer you play, the less you pay per day.” It’s corny but true. Single-day Walt Disney World tickets are expensive, but multi-day tickets are much cheaper per day. The cost of additional days on a ticket substantially decreases with each day you add after 3 days. In other words, longer trips are not proportionately more expensive than shorter ones.
This is just one of the many tips we cover in our post about saving money on Walt Disney World park tickets. Buying in advance of your trip allows you to book FastPass+ selections up to 60 days before your trip if you’re staying on-site. Whatever you do, don’t wait to buy your tickets at the front gates of the parks (or on eBay…they won’t work!), because then you can’t book your FastPass+ attractions in advance. You’ll understand why this is a huge deal in the sections below…
4. Where to Stay
One of the very best posts on this blog is our Walt Disney World Hotel Reviews page. We have stayed at every Disney hotel, plus many off-site ones. That page offers links to each of our hotel reviews, room photos, thoughts on the amenities, pros & cons, and more.
All of our hotel reviews are regularly updated, so what you see in those is how the rooms actually look now, not a decade ago. With that said, there’s some construction also happening at the hotels that isn’t covered in our reviews. Our list of Construction & Refurbishments at Walt Disney World Hotels covers where to avoid, and how these projects could impact your trip.
When pricing out Walt Disney World hotels, you’re bound to have some sticker shock. Prices have gone up considerably in the last few years, and discounts are not nearly as abundant as they once were. If your budget is tight but you still want on-site luxury, consider getting a quote from Disney Vacation Club point rental company (click here to book with the cheapest point DVC rental company).
For more info about renting points, you might want to read our Guide to Renting Disney Vacation Club Points article. This is a great way to save money on nicer accommodations than you otherwise might be able to afford.
Debating whether to stay off-site to save money or on-site at Walt Disney World for convenience and to be immersed in the magic? We have an Off-Site v. On-Site Walt Disney World Hotels article that goes into great depth about the pros and cons of both options.
One option if you want to save money by staying off-site but want larger accommodations than a standard hotel is Airbnb or a vacation home rental. We’ve used Airbnb a ton, and absolutely love it. If you’re unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the service, we have a post covering Tips for Using Airbnb at Disney to put you at ease!
If you’re going to stay on-site at Walt Disney World, 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.” Looking for the best hotel in each tier? Check out the following posts ranking the various Disney hotels:
Beyond the location and transportation, some of the main perks of staying on-site are the FastPass+ booking window and MagicBands. FastPass+ is the all-digital ride reservation system that replaced paper FastPasses several years ago. Read our Guide to FastPass+ at Walt Disney World to fully understand the system, and how to best take advantage of it.
The big thing to know about this system as it pertains to staying on-site or off-site is in terms of FastPass+. Guests staying at a Walt Disney World hotel can make FastPass+ reservations up to 60 days before their trips; those staying off-site can only book FastPass+ reservations up to 30 days in advance.
If you want FastPass+ for popular experiences like Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Frozen Ever After, Slinky Dog Dash, or other popular attractions, having the full 60 day window might be the only way to get them. Many of these FastPass+ experiences “sell out” within hours or days of their 60-day windows opening.
This is a big deal because each of these attractions can have 2+ hour waits depending upon the time of year, so by being able to make these FastPass+ ride reservations with that 60-day window can be the difference between waiting an extra 4-6 hours in line per day, or not. This is also why we highly recommend buying park tickets in advance of your visit. You can still make FastPass+ reservations on the day you arrive at Walt Disney World, but you’ll be picking from leftovers that no one else really wants, so to speak.
5. Booking Vacation Packages
The most popular direct-from Disney vacations booked via DisneyWorld.com 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.
Even though you can save a lot with vacation packages, you’re saving that off Walt Disney World’s on-site pricing. We believe it’s worth it to pay a premium for the “Disney Difference” and location, but that may not matter as much to you. If your main criteria is to save money, read our Tips for Doing Walt Disney World on a Dime post.
The best way to find the right vacation package for you is by using a travel agent. If you go this route, look for one who primarily or exclusively does Disney-related bookings. As you can probably gather already, Walt Disney World is fairly complex, and if a travel agent doesn’t specialize in Disney, they probably won’t know the many nuances of Walt Disney World vacations (for this reason, we don’t recommend AAA, even though many of their agents are knowledgeable about Disney).
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 which package might be best for you–or need personalized help with any aspect of your trip–we recommend contacting a no fee “Authorized Disney Vacation Planner” (here’s why we recommend using a no-fee vacation planner) to get a quote and to help you plan.
Here’s where you can request a quote from our recommended Authorized Disney Vacation Planner. If you’re not convinced using a free Authorized Disney Vacation Planner is right for you, read about the benefits they offer.
6. Airfare & Transportation
For finding cheap airfare, we recommend ITA Software by Google. It’s the most robust airfare search engine out there.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..
Disney transportation can be hit or miss, and can take a lot of time. For the most efficient transit options, read our Time-Saving Walt Disney World Transportation Tips post. This covers shortcuts, when to use buses v. monorail v. boats v. your feet, and more!
One of the other big considerations is whether you want to stay at a Walt Disney World hotel that offers a unique form of transportation, such as the monorails to Magic Kingdom or Epcot, or the boats, walking paths, or Skyliner to Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Epcot. These can be a huge time-saver.
If you don’t stay at one of these resorts, you should consider renting a car. Check out our Tips for Renting a Car at Walt Disney World post for pros & cons, money-saving tips, and more. Walt Disney World provides complimentary transportation to the parks and even to and from the airport. We cover how to use this free service in our Disney’s Magical Express post.
An alternative to a rental car is Lyft (or the Minnie Van service powered by Lyft) or Uber. For the basics on using these ride-sharing services, read our Tips for Using Lyft or Uber at Walt Disney World post. This post also shares the easiest way to get to Universal Orlando Resort (in case you want to see the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, too)
7. What to Pack
It might sound hard to believe, but packing for Walt Disney World offers ways to save money and improve your experience. There are some wrinkles to Walt Disney World that make packing a bit different, and by bringing certain “clever” (we think) items in your luggage, you will improve your experience. We go over the best stuff in our Walt Disney World Unique Packing List.
Two of our favorite examples from that list are Frogg Toggs Chilly Pads and this Compact External Charger. Seriously, you’ll wonder how you ever travelled without these (and many other) items on our list! Additionally, if you’re going in the colder months, check out our Packing for Disney in Winter post. For summer months, read Tips for Beating the Summer Heat at Disney.
In addition to those things, you might also want to bring some pins for Disney Pin Trading. Read this article to find out how to buy Disney Pin Trading pins in advance for less than $1/pin (versus $10+/pin at Walt Disney World). If you’re a female looking for cute outfits to wear to Walt Disney World, my wife has a post covering What to Wear to Disney.
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 and for how you can take better photos at Walt Disney World, read our Ultimate Guide to Disney Parks Photography.
In that post, there’s one point & shoot camera and a book that I recommend to 90% of readers interested in taking better photos at Walt Disney World. If you are contemplating letting Disney’s roaming photographers around the parks take photos for you, read our Memory Maker & PhotoPass Review.
8. Which Attractions To Do
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. We are not those people. We like to pre-plan to a degree, but going to those lengths just seems unnecessarily stressful, especially since the best laid plans often go awry.
Having an itinerary, even a loose one, is important for first-time visitors to beat the crowds and avoid long waits in line. Doing things inefficiently can mean a lot more time spent in lines or having to skip attractions completely if lines are too long. All you need to develop a basic itinerary are our attraction guides for each park. We highly recommend reading our Disney Parks Ride Guides and getting a rough idea of which attractions you want to do, and where you want to book your FastPass+:
We also have guides for the Walt Disney World water parks and Disney Springs:
These are enough for a loose and helpful plan that will still allow for plenty of spontaneity. Aside from having a good itinerary, the most important things to know are: 1) which attractions have height restrictions (if you have children); 2) how to use FastPass+, which is a free ride-reservation system allowing you to “reserve” a slot in advance for three attractions per day to skip most of the line at select attractions; 3) arrive at the parks just before they open.
Forming your own strategy and using FastPass+ to its fullest is difficult and confusing. Since you can book your FastPass+ reservations 60 days before your trip (if you already have your tickets and are staying on-site), we highly recommend buying your tickets before you get to Walt Disney World. You don’t want to waste time at kiosks when you arrive, only to find out popular attractions like Slinky Dog Dash and Frozen Ever After are fully booked.
With all of the rest of the planning that you’re doing, we strongly recommend first-time visitors do not “wing 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.
We have the following plans for each park that cover our perfect days:
Note that we’ve updated these itineraries, so they include Pandora – World of Avatar and other new entertainment. For other parks and itineraries, check out our Disney Parks Daily Itineraries page. You can use these to have what we would consider a perfect day in each of the Walt Disney World parks. We think these are good, flexible itineraries that offers attractions, dining, and other things to enjoy without going crazy with mapping out every bathroom stop of your day.
9. Where to Eat
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.
To figure out where to eat, consult our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews page. That page has reviews of 75+ restaurants at Walt Disney World, plus other resources like our Magic Kingdom Counter Service Restaurant Rankings, and lots of other specific topics. Another great post with random quick-tips is our 101 Walt Disney World Dining Tips post.
Good dining experiences can make a trip, so if you only read more on one topic in this guide, make it dining. 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. Whether to buy the Disney Dining Plan is one of the biggest questions most first-time guests face, so you really should read our Disney Dining Plan Pros & Cons post to determine if it’s right for you. It’s definitely not right for everyone, so don’t just assume it’s going to save you money–do the math.
If you’re starting the planning process far in advance, you might want to subscribe to our free newsletter for updates. We provide subscribers with news from the parks, and have given a heads up on Free Dining and ticket price increases before they have been officially announced. This makes the newsletter especially handy for scoring discounts and being in the know as to what’s going on before your trip.
It’s also worth noting that if you’re trying to do “Disney on a Dime,” one of the easiest ways to save money is to not eat at Walt Disney World restaurants. Dining at Disney is expensive, and unlike park tickets, it’s not mandatory. You can save a lot of money by eating off-site, or better yet, getting groceries and preparing your own meals. We have a comprehensive Tips for Buying Groceries at Walt Disney World post that covers grocery delivery, local stores, and much more.
Even if you don’t want to make your own meals, grocery delivery is great for getting fruit and other small grab and go snacks, both of which are really over-priced at Walt Disney World. It’s also excellent for beer–for less than the cost of a single beer in the parks, you can have a 6-pack delivered to your hotel room! We recommend Garden Grocer for delivery–they can deliver to every Walt Disney World resort hotel.
10. What Else to Do
Your imagination is really the limit here. Most first-time visitors only know about the theme parks, Disney Springs, 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. Honeymooners (aka “Disneymooners”) should read our Walt Disney World Honeymoon Tips article. Here are some other posts that cover “other stuff” at Walt Disney World, and other ways to improve your vacation, that don’t really fit the categories above:
If all of this is really overwhelming, we recommend contacting an Authorized Disney Vacation Planner and letting them do the work for you. This is Disney’s term for their affiliated travel agents, and the huge upside to them is that they don’t charge for their services–Disney pays them directly at no cost to you! Click here to get a vacation quote from our recommended no fee Authorized Disney Vacation Planner.
Remember, what’s in this post is just a starting point. To recap, you’ll also want to read our When to Visit Walt Disney World post for the best time of year to plan your trip. If saving money is important, read Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post to buy the cheapest tickets from legitimate sources. To figure out where to stay, our Walt Disney World Hotel Reviews page is a great resource. Want to know where to eat or if the Disney Dining Plan is right for you? Our Walt Disney World Dining Resources will help!
These are just a few of many posts mentioned in this article that will provide the foundation for your planning…but these 4 other posts are probably the most important of the bunch! If you enjoyed this Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide, please help us out by sharing it with your friends via social media. We put a lot of ongoing work into this, and hope it’s as helpful as possible to as many trip planners as possible. Thank you so much for your support–we really appreciate it!
Are you visiting Walt Disney World in 2021? If you are a Walt Disney World veteran, what tips would you add to this? If you’re a first-timer, is there anything else you’d like to know? Are you excited to experience the parks upon reopening or will you wait for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary in 2021 before visiting? We love hearing from readers, whether it be questions from newbies or tips from seasoned Disney pros with tips of their own to add!