There’s a lot of pressure to plan for Walt Disney World down to the smallest detail. Advance Dining Reservations, dessert parties, dining packages, and other upcharge offerings–plus fear of missing out all makes it seem necessary to meticulous planning. This can create stress and sky-high expectations, and we want to underscore that months of planning are not essential to have a fun Walt Disney World vacation. (Updated November 15, 2022.)
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, having detailed itineraries every single day and a sound strategy for scoring the top Genie+ Lightning Lane reservations, 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 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 or two Advance Dining Reservations. What we do beyond that is often impulsive, determined the day-of.
Walt Disney World planning obsessives will probably consider this heresy, but I hate spreadsheets. From my perspective, spreadsheets are antithetical to the core concept of vacationing. I understand others vehemently disagree, so to each their own. If you enjoy making spreadsheets, feel free to go nuts at it.
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. (We also do a lot of “practice days” that are highly choreographed, but are really for research and not for personal enjoyment.)
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 also helpful for learning and improving our planning resources. 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 a year in advance, booking hotels and airfare around that time, making other reservations a few months in advance, and doing the more granular itinerary-building inside of a few weeks.
That’s where blogs like this one and social media come into play. While you’re planning your ADRs, Genie+ priorities, 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 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. One of the things we’ve been stressing lately is that it’s often easier to book Advance Dining Reservations last-minute rather than 60+ days in advance. (See our recent Top 10 Tips for Difficult ADRs at Walt Disney World.)
Obviously, this is a YMMV situation as you won’t always have your ‘must-eat’ restaurants available for last-minute bookings, but you very well might. Since we take more last minute trips, one of our top strategies is regular refreshing of the MDX app for last-minute cancellations or ADR drops, and this strategy has proven quite successful for us.
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 take away 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.
Moreover, you should not buy into planning recommendations (or hype) that has a dire sense of urgency to it. When it comes to trip planning and social media, there’s a pervasive sense of FOMO that drives many people to spend on unnecessary experiences at Walt Disney World. Consider it a form of keeping up with the online Joneses (or Kardashians, these days). This is exacerbated by certain popular experiences booking up quickly, but that’s less a reflection of quality and demand than it is limited supply and the FOMO machine.
In short, 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. The pressure to plan a perfect trip is optional, because there’s no such thing (and paradoxically, every imperfect trip can be perfect in its own way if you let it).
You can have an incredible trip dining booking all of your ADRs same-day and eating exclusively at hidden gem restaurants. You can do attractions on a whim without spreadsheets or even our semi-structured itineraries. You don’t need to ride Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance or Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind to have a memorable 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!
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!