Being Spontaneous at Disney World

There’s a lot of pressure to plan for Walt Disney World down to the smallest detail. Advance Dining Reservations, FastPass+, and fear of missing out all makes it seem necessary to meticulous planning. In hearing about the stress and high expectations this creates, I decided to write this post to underscore that months of planning are not essential to have a fun Walt Disney World vacation. (Updated January 31, 2020.)

Part of this is, honestly, because I feel guilty. While we stress the importance of slowing down and having balance on Walt Disney World vacations, the sheer volume of the planning resources on this blog and sites like it no doubt compounds the stress people have when it comes to trip planning. I sense that there’s a feeling that if you don’t spend 100+ hours planning, getting all of the “best” ADRs, FastPass+, and having detailed itineraries every single day, the trip is a categorical failure.

This simply is not true, and we’ll cover why in this post. I was going to title this Tips for Being Spontaneous at Walt Disney World, but direct strategy for spontaneity sort of misses the point. Instead, this is more generalized; think of it as reassurance that you can have a great trip even without planning every minute detail 6 months in advance…

I’ve discussed this before, but usually we don’t follow our own advice when it comes to Walt Disney World planning. There have been entire trips where we’ve only made one FastPass+ (usually Avatar Flight of Passage) and the only one Advance Dining Reservation or two. What we do beyond that is often impulsive, determined the day-of.

We have done other trips that have involved more planning. Particularly when we take family or go with friends for whom it’s a less frequent experience, we do a solid amount of planning. In other situations, our visits are more impulsive, booked only a few weeks in advance. For us, spontaneity isn’t just nice from a relaxation perspective, it’s helpful for the sake of research. We make mistakes, stumble upon surprises, and report back with our findings.

For most readers, impulsive trips and doing things for the sake of research are not the norm. You’re usually starting to think about vacation 9 months to a year in advance, making reservations around 6 months in advance, and doing the more granular itinerary-building inside of a few months.

That’s where blogs like this one and social media come into play. While you’re planning your ADRs, FastPass+, or daily plans, you might do some research, and encounter a barrage of advice consisting of various must-dos, step-by-step strategy, and lists of mistakes and pitfalls Walt Disney World guests make. This blog is certainly guilty of some of those things.

With that in mind, I want to reiterate that the tips on this blog are just that–suggestions. Nothing here is an imperative. Instead, think of this in a holistic sense: you read from our knowledge base, incorporating the helpful tips into your own plans.

You should disregard whatever does not appeal to you, is not pertinent, or just seems like crumby advice. If you utilize even 10% of the tips on this blog, you’re way more prepared than the average guest, who still thinks “the Harry Potter park” is at Walt Disneyland Florida.

I don’t believe that are any specific things you absolutely must do or avoid in order to have the perfect Walt Disney World trip. To the contrary, there is no such thing as a “perfect” trip, and trying to chase that illusion is a fool’s errand.

In an abstract sense, I think there is danger in extensive planning: the expectations and stress it creates. If you have a binder filled with daily printouts of customized, step-by-step itineraries, you have no doubt spent dozens (if not hundreds) of hours planning for the trip, and intend for things to go a certain way.

There are a couple of problems with this. First, it can create unrealistic expectations. If you work really hard to get a Be Our Guest Restaurant ADR, and find yourself building up the hype six months in advance, there’s a reasonable probability you will be disappointed.

Personally, I think this is one of the big reason so many new things at Walt Disney World have drawn polarized responses. The build-up and anticipation for some of these experiences are just crazy. This often leads to two polarized results: disappointment because the experience was not as good as expected, or heaping of praise due to a desire to confirm one’s preconceptions. (And so the cycle continues.)

You know the adage, ‘the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry’? Well, the Walt Disney World counterpart to that should be that ‘the best planned itineraries of mice and tourists always go awry.’ Walt Disney World runs like a well-oiled machine most of the time, but there are simply too many moving parts for plans to go perfectly.

The good news is that the online knowledge base for Walt Disney World you reviewed extensively while planning taught you how to approach Walt Disney World. You learned how to approach the park, resorts, restaurants, etc., and that can be applied dynamically to myriad hiccups and snafus as they arise. As with all things in life, knowledge is power.

Usually there is one planner in the family/party and everyone else is going along for the ride. The issue here is that, even though the people going along for the ride offered no input during the planning stages, they will have input upon arrival. This can cause bitterness in the person who spent so much time planning, who now feels that their effort is unappreciated or is going ignored. It also can cause frustration in those along for the ride, who are told the plans are already set, and it’s too late for the input.

Neither perspective here is invalid, depending upon the approach both sides take. On the one hand, advance planning for Walt Disney World is important and your (I’m assuming the “planner” is reading this post, since it’s a planning blog) time and effort to plan should be appreciated.

Conversely, the word “vacation” has a certain connotation, and a trip to Walt Disney World flies in the face of the conventional understanding of that meaning. Many first-timers simply do not know what they are getting themselves into when it comes to WDW. They are not totally to blame by underestimating its complexity; nowhere we’ve visited in the world is as complicated of a destination as Walt Disney World.

Sometimes this dichotomy works out perfectly. Those along for the ride go with the flow, and end up viewing the planner as some sort of freakishly omniscient Walt Disney World tour guide, elevating them to ‘Vacation Hero’ status as they weave past the crowds and lines, and have an amazing trip.

Just as often, it leads to meltdown. Meltdown of a parent who put so much effort into planning the perfect trip, and has found their plans derailed or their efforts under-appreciated. Meltdown of a child who cannot do what they want, or has been forced to tour at a whirlwind pace, when really, they’d be perfectly happy to just play in a splash pad for an hour.

This is something to consider before even starting to plan a trip, and is a good conversation to have before throwing away dozens upon dozens of hours doing potentially-unnecessary planning. This is also why we recommend a balanced approach as the ideal, with pre-planning as well as room to wander and do things on a whim. (Or “planned spontaneity” as we call it.)

In all situations, it’s still important to remember that hyper-planning is not a strict necessity. To illustrate, let’s take a look at some FastPass+ and ADRs that are available tomorrow.

In Magic Kingdom, I could get FastPass for every single attraction except for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. In Epcot, only Frozen Ever After and (oddly enough) Mission: SPACE are unavailable. It’s similar for the headliners in Animal Kingdom and DHS.

As far as dining goes, I could do 50’s Prime Time Cafe or Akershus Royal Banquet Hall if I wanted something fun or family-friendly. Tiffins, Artist Point, Boma, and even ‘Ohana (to my surprise–don’t expect to find this on a normal last minute day) are available–along with many others–on the higher end. I could also opt for Planet Hollywood if I really wanted to punish my stomach.

Obviously, this is a YMMV situation as you won’t always have these restaurants and attractions available for last-minute bookings, but you very well might. I think ‘Ohana being available really underscores the great last minute finds that can be snagged. Since we take more last minute trips, one of our top strategies is regular refreshing of the MDX app for last-minute cancellations, and this strategy has proven quite successful for us (we’ve done Frozen Ever After many times this way).

As far as the quality of these restaurants goes, I’d say Tiffins is superior to Be Our Guest Restaurant and Peter Pan’s Flight is better than Frozen Ever After. Moreover, all is not lost if you don’t score that elusive FastPass+ for the most popular rides. In addition to the refresh strategy mentioned above, rope drop and 1 minute before park closing are still viable options.

I cannot remember the last time I was able to get a Seven Dwarfs Mine Train FastPass+, but we ride it at least once per trip–waiting in line ~30 minutes or less–by getting in line at the very end of the night. This is the type of strategy that we cover in our 1-Day Disney Parks Itineraries, so I won’t further rehash them here.

Rather than offering comprehensive strategy for being spontaneous at Walt Disney World (since that’s a contradiction-in-terms), the salient point we hope you takeaway from this post is that you can be spontaneous at Walt Disney World. Planning is great. We recommend it. But your entire trip does not need to be planned down to the minute, and you should not buy into planning recommendations (or hype) that has a dire sense of urgency to it.

Walt Disney World is a big place with a ton to offer. Even on a “highly successful” trip, you’re barely scratching the surface of the great things to do. Absolutely no single thing at WDW is make or break in the grand scheme of a trip. This is important to remember, and we hope this post has helped you take a step back and potentially re-evaluate the way you think about a Walt Disney World vacation.

Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!

Your Thoughts

Do you agree or disagree with our advice about being spontaneous at Walt Disney World? Do you have any hacks for making last minute trips go better? Any tips of your own about balancing pre-planning with spontaneity? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

125 Responses to “Being Spontaneous at Disney World”
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