Our Walt Disney World trip planning guide offers vacation tips & info for first-timers and Florida regulars. We cover how to save money and time, avoid crowds, where to eat, which rides to do, and best WDW itineraries. The information here is updated regularly, as Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Disney Springs, and the two-dozen hotels are also constantly changing right now! (Last updated April 2, 2019.)
Many first-timers don’t realize Walt Disney World is so complicated until they arrive. The commercials make it look like a carefree world where everyone skips holding hands with Mickey Mouse and walking onto rides. That’s not the reality. You need to plan. There is a ton to know before you visit Walt Disney World. As complicated as planning might seem, the payoff is worth it. After hundreds of trips dating back to the 1980s, we’ve learned a lot, and try to distill it into something easy to absorb to make your planning easier.
Think of this post as WDW101, with everything organized into the most important aspects of Walt Disney World vacation planning. This page provides background information on each aspect of your trip, and links to other helpful blog posts with more detailed information. Each linked-to post opens in a new tab, so click away as you read to learn more. We also recommend signing up for our free email newsletterso you can stay updated with all the latest changes, news, and more info on the parks–a lot is happening right now as Walt Disney World prepares for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opening.
We are Florida-based Walt Disney World Annual Passholders who visit weekly to review new dining, experience special events, analyze crowds, share updates on construction (there’s a lot of it), and more. We keep email newsletter subscribers posted about all of the latest changes at Walt Disney World. (You can also browse our monthly updates & photo reports from the parks here.)
Moving along to the general trip planning–while we are Disney fans, with this guide, we share our objective and unbiased tips. This covers the good and the bad, pros & cons of everything you’ll need to know for your 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 plenty of other planning sites that offer only positive or only negative spins on Disney. 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
There are two components to this question: which year and which season. The first question boils down to whether you’re a big Star Wars fan. If so, wait until at least September 2019. If not, visit before then, especially if you dislike crowds. This is because Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disney’s Hollywood Studios opens August 29, 2019, and it’s going to cause a huge spike in crowds–especially October through December 2019.
A variety of other attractions and entertainment offerings have opened in the last several years, with many more to come. Read our What’s New at Walt Disney World, and What’s Next in 2019post for more insight as what’s new-ish, and what you can expect to see in the parks in the next year (and beyond).
Now that an official opening date has been set for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Walt Disney World, it’s easier to plan when you want to visit Walt Disney World in 2019 either to see or avoid that blockbuster new land, which is sure to draw huge crowds.
If you’re planning way-way into the future, the absolute “best” time to visit will be in 2021 for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary. For most people, 2021 is too long to wait, but if you do, you’ll be rewarded with the new TRON Lightcycle Power Run coaster at Magic Kingdom, Guardians of the Galaxy hybrid coaster at Epcot, Ratatouille family dark ride at Epcot, and more.
Suffice to say, if you’re planning a trip between now and 2020, you should plan on encountering some degree of construction. You can definitely minimize how much this impacts your trip, particularly by staying at resort hotels that do not have projects. Here’s our list of 2019 Construction & Refurbishments at Walt Disney World Hotels.
The most popular Walt Disney World discount of the year is the Free Disney Dining Plan promotion. This is one good reason to visit this summer, but a ‘second wave’ of Free Dining for late 2019 is possible, but we’re no longer expecting that to occur given the announced early opening of Star Wars land.
Beyond saving money, crowds should be a huge consideration. Walt Disney World can be crowded, and the time of year you visit can have a dramatic impact on wait times. School breaks tend to be the busiest times of the year due to the vast majority of Walt Disney World guests having school-age children. (If you’re visiting with kids, you’ll want to read our Walt Disney World Trip Planning with Kids guide in addition to this post.)
Generally, the week (or so) long breaks are absolutely the worst in terms of crowds. If you’re planning a Summer 2019, the first bit of good news is that summer is no longer busy season at Walt Disney World…at least, not totally. The second bit of good news is that next summer will likely be a slower period as people postpone their annual visits, waiting for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge to open.
The two “best” times of year for seasonal events at Walt Disney World are fall and Christmas. In September and October, you have Food & Wine Festival at Epcot and Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party in the Magic Kingdom, plus Halloween decorations. You can read our Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party Photo Report for thoughts on that.
After that, the Epcot International Festival of the Holidays kicks off in mid-November as a replacement event themed to holiday traditions around the world. We’re big fans of this, and really enjoy the comforting savory snacks and decadent desserts offered during the Christmas season at Epcot.
Once the calendar turns to January 2020, the Epcot International Festival of the Arts will again return. That’s the park’s newest special event, and our favorite event of the year at Epcot. It’s a real ‘sleeper’ hit. We visited for Festival of the Arts several times this year and absolutely loved it.
There are seasonal events pretty much every time of year except the very beginning of the calendar year and the middle of summer. No matter when you visit, you’re going to be at Walt Disney World during something special; it’s a good idea to consult those guides before picking your vacation dates to see which event is most appealing to you.
2. How Long to Stay
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. For the first time visitor, 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 Studios Florida (including the Wizarding World of Harry Potter), SeaWorld, Busch Gardens might be places you want to visit. Or maybe you want to visit the beach, or visit local outlet malls…or go manatee watching…I have no clue what people enjoy doing outside of Disney. 😉
Of all these things, the one place we think you should give serious consideration is Universal Orlando Resort. Consider spending a day at Universal Studios Florida or Islands of Adventure, and use our Universal Orlando Resort Trip Planning Guidefor strategy.
We also have a post titled Walt Disney World v. Universal Orlando that covers a lot of the pros and cons of visiting Universal. I am not a Harry Potter fan, but I was absolutely blown away by the Diagon Alley area in Universal Studios Florida and Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure.
There’s also other stuff at Walt Disney World besides the theme parks to consider when planning how many days you spend there. This “other stuff” at Walt Disney World consists of Disney Springs, golf, restaurants, water parks, and more. We recommend at least 1-2 partial or full days of this entertainment outside the parks.
3. Park Tickets
If you book a package, you may not have a ton of say over which park tickets you purchase. However, we recommend buying your tickets separately from an authorized third party ticket seller to save money if you can. 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 ParkSavers, our recommended & Disney-authorized ticket seller. If you’re visiting before December 31, 2019, you should buy your park tickets as soon as possible to lock-in lower pricing.
Disney’s mantra is “the longer you play, the less you pay per day.” As corny as it sounds, it’s true. Single-day Walt Disney World tickets are quite pricey, 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. (Too bad the same doesn’t apply to hotel rooms!)
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 (we think) is our Walt Disney World Hotel Reviews page. We have stayed at every single on-property Walt Disney World hotel, and that page offers links to each of our hotel reviews. Those reviews feature room photos that we took and are really helpful in deciding which hotel will appeal most to your family. We updated almost every single one of our hotel reviews with new photos last year, so what you see in those is how the room actually looks now, not how it looked a decade ago.
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).
If you’re totally unsure of where you want to stay, the first question you should answer is whether to stay on-site or off-site? In general, you get more bang for your buck when staying in an off-site hotel, as there are a lot of 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.”
Basically, the decision to stay off-site will likely come down to saving money. Comparable (or better) rooms off-site can be significantly cheaper than on-site Walt Disney World hotels. We have an Off-Site v. On-Site Walt Disney World Hotels article that goes into greater 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 Disneyto 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.
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.
You’ll also need to determine whether to rent a car. If you’re not visiting other destinations outside of Walt Disney World, you might not need to waste the money on one. 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).
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!
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 ourWalt Disney World Unique Packing List.
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+:
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.
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.
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!
There are lots of other random posts scattered around the blog, so you might want to read our Tour of Disney Tourist Blog post for an archive of some of the best & most popular posts on the blog. We update posts as frequently as possible, so if there’s a hot topic, you can be sure it has been updated within the last 90 days. Most popular posts are updated even more frequently than that.
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!
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 2019 or 2020? 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 Pandora – World of Avatar or Toy Story Land…or will you wait for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge to open 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!