What is actually important in planning a trip to Walt Disney World?

July 21, 2018, 11:46 AM · Are you overwhelmed with advice on how to plan your trip to the Walt Disney World Resort? You could spend the rest of the year researching all there is to do at the world's largest and popular theme park resort, crafting strategies to see it all and setting alarms to make reservations at the earliest possible moment. Some people actually love doing all that. It helps them feel "part of the magic," even when they're far away at home or at work.

But if you just wanted to show up tomorrow and buy a ticket, instead, with no advance planning whatever... you can. And you could have a wonderful time doing that.

I am willing to bet that most of you fall somewhere in between. You would like to ensure that you get the experiences you want most from visiting Disney while minimizing your time waiting in line. But you don't want to have to plan an invasion to do it.

In that spirit, we offer our "TL;DR" (too long, didn't read) summary of Walt Disney World vacation planning. Here are the top five things to do that we believe are most worth your time in advance of your Disney trip.

1) Whenever you'd like: Decide when you want to go and where you want to stay.

Start with our Disney Parks review pages to learn more about the attractions and restaurants at Disney World's four theme parks and the dozens of on-site hotels where you could stay.

With all its festivals, runDisney events and Orlando's huge convention business, there's no real "off season" at Disney anymore. But Disney's one-day ticket price calendar serves as a free, reasonably accurate crowd calendar if you would like to aim for days that are a bit less busy than others. (Value ticket days have the smaller crowds, while Peak days have the larger ones.)

Yes, you have lots of options here, but don't let those intimidate you. You are just picking dates, whether to drive or fly, and where to stay — just as you would on any other vacation. If Disney's hotel prices are too much for you, you can find abundant off-site hotels for much less.

If you book at a Disney resort, you can bundle your theme park tickets into a package. Otherwise, buy your tickets, then link them to a My Disney Experience account that you will create on Disney World's website.

2) Six months out: Make your dining reservations.

You can book dining reservations at Disney World's table service and character meal restaurants six months in advance, either on the Disney website or by calling +1-407-WDW-DINE (1-407-939-3463). Online reservations open at 6am Eastern Time 180 days in advance while the phone reservations start at 7am ET.

For people staying at a Disney World hotel, your reservation window for your entire trip opens 180 days in advance of the first day of your stay. That means you can book more than 180 days in advance for the later days of your stay. That gives you an advantage in booking hard-to-get reservations that you should use, if you wish. If you ever have questions about Disney World vacation reservations, you can call Disney at +1-407-939-5277. Hold times can get crazy, though, so leave that as a last resort if you can.

If you can't get the reservation you want right away, keep trying every few weeks. People cancel. Reservations often open up one week to one day in advance, if you want to keep trying until the last minute. But even if you can't get high-demand reservations such as Be Our Guest, Cinderella's Royal Table, Le Cellier, or 'Ohana, don't stress. Many top-rated Disney World restaurants almost always have tables available, such as Tiffins in Disney's Animal Kingdom, Monsieur Paul, Via Napoli, and Restaurant Marrakesh in Epcot, and Jungle Navigation Company Skipper Canteen in the Magic Kingdom.

And Disney offers plenty of great counter service restaurants where you can walk up at any time, including Satu'li Canteen and Flame Tree Barbecue in Disney's Animal Kingdom, Les Halles Boulangerie and Patisserie, Tangierine Cafe, and Katsura Grill at Epcot, and Columbia Harbour House and Sleepy Hollow Refreshments in the Magic Kingdom. Woody's Lunch Box is our favorite counter service place at Disney's Hollywood Studios, but it's part of the popular new Toy Story Land, so it can get really crowded. No matter which "quick service" restaurant you pick, use Disney's mobile ordering system to save time waiting in line.

3) 60 or 30 days out: Make your Fastpass+ reservations.

Disney offers a free ride reservation system called Fastpass+ that allows you to reserve times to go on three attractions each day of your visit. Once you use those three, you can make additional reservations for the rest of that day, one at a time, using Disney World's official app. Here is our guide to using Fastpass+. This is why you need to create that My Disney Experience account in advance, because that is what you will use to manage Fastpass+ reservations for you and your group. It's easy to do and don't sweat if you can't get exactly the rides you want. Pick the best you can get and start looking forward to your trip!

Those are the most important steps in planning a Disney World trip. If you could not get Fastpass+ reservations to all the rides and shows you really wanted to experience, we have a couple more steps to help you get on them.

4) Before arrival: Check to see which parks have Extra Magic Hours on each day.

Disney offers "Extra Magic Hours" to its resort guests at at least one park each day, sometimes before the park opens and sometimes after it closes. These are extra park hours just for hotel guests. If you are staying at a Disney World hotel, using Extra Magic Hours can be a good way to get on popular rides when they have shorter waits than normal.

But if you are not staying at a Disney hotel, you should be aware of Extra Magic Hours because they are going to put a lot more people than normal into whichever park is hosting them that day. If you want to avoid the crowds, go to the park that does not have Extra Magic Hours that day. Which brings us to...

5) Day of your visit: Arrive early*.

Plan to arrive at the park's toll booth or entry plaza at least one hour before its published opening time, so that you can park, go through the bag check and then into the front gate before they "drop the rope" to allow guests into the park's lands. You want to head first to the attraction you most want to experience in that park for which you do not have a Fastpass+ reservation. Then head to your second-choice non-Fastpass+ attraction. You want to get as many popular rides in before the lines get long.

The reason you want to avoid a park with Extra Magic Hours in the morning is because it already will have hotel guests in the park, waiting in line, when you get there.

Now, about that asterisk: *If all else fails... stay late. The counter strategy to rope-dropping a popular ride is to wait to get into its stand-by line until just before the park closes. "Closing time" at a Disney theme park means that is the time when Disney closes the lines to its attractions, not the time by which everyone needs to be out of the park. There are no Fastpass+ return times after park close, so at that moment, the standby lines for rides start moving much faster, as they now longer need to hold that line to take people with Fastpass+ reservations. People also start leaving the park in the evening, so lines typically get much shorter later in the day.

Finally, please consider...

What is not important: Anything that turns your enjoyment into misery.

There is a lot of clickbait out there that preys upon your insecurity as a parent or a consumer. Travel websites love to publish "Must-do" lists and "You haven't done Disney right unless..." gatekeeping. Go ahead and read that stuff for information about the parks, but ignore the all the judgment. Do want you want, and don't let anyone tell you that you are doing anything wrong.

However you plan and manage your vacation is the right way. If you get confused, frustrated, or flustered during your trip, put a smile on your face and look for the nearest Disney cast member with a smile on his or her face. Then go up that Disney employee and ask for help or advice. No one wants to help a demanding jerk, but (speaking as a former Disney World cast member), Disney's employees are happy to help anyone who genuinely is trying to find a way to have a better time at the resort.

Cast members will help the jerks, too, but through gritted teeth and sometimes not in the ways that wish. Don't be that person. Stay positive, stay safe, and your trip will work out fine.

Have a great trip!

Replies (6)

July 21, 2018 at 8:26 PM

Okay, wrote this before I realized I wasn't logged in so sorry if it sounds like a copy comment.

Don't be afraid to be spontaneous. Don't hold to some must-do plan. Take the time for stuff like World Showcase pavilion or a quieter attraction that show Disney at its best. Also, you never know when a prime spot opens up at a nice dining place the day you're there and other factors that can shake it up. Yes, planning is important but being open to adjusting to the flow really makes for a fun trip.

July 21, 2018 at 8:48 PM

Wow!

That’s a really good point about staying late and getting in line before the attraction closes to avoid the bottle-necks that are formed with fast pass+ riders.

It’s something I never really thought about and haven’t tried out myself.

Does the line really move much quicker with just one stand by queue running?

July 22, 2018 at 7:28 AM

My advice, if you are spending anything less than 5 days at WDW: Don't try to see everything, but make sure to enjoy what you are seeing.

Stop to enjoy the setting you are in, even the lines quite often. Nobody does immersive settings like Disney (& Universal). Allow yourself to be immersed. That's hard to do if you are constantly running to the next ride.

July 22, 2018 at 9:22 AM

My advice is don't overplan and don't stress out if you don't get to see everything you want, the parks aren't going anywhere. I have seen grown adults have meltdowns in the middle of crowded hotel lobbies screaming at each other because "something hasn't gone exactly to their plan" and they are exhausted, sunburnt and miserable.

Speaking of sunburnt guests..don't forget Central Florida is the Sunburn Belt. You need to use SPF 40 at least and make sure you do the top of your heads and feet. There is nothing as bad as a burn that makes it uncomfortable to walk around.

Also...hydrate..hydrate..hydrate...with water, not soda or beer. Too many people wind up in the local ER's with sun poisoning and dehydration, around here they call it the Disney Effect.

And Finally...have fun! It's your vacation, don't overdo it, don't stress out and be a kid again. Ride all the kiddie rides you want!

July 23, 2018 at 4:20 AM

This is the exact reason I stopped going to WDW. It doesn't feel in any way or form as a vacation. I don't stay on site due to the extreme prices (I can rent a home for 5 weeks compared to 1 week at WDW) and lack of efficient transportation.
The 1 time I went after the terrible Magic band system I wasn't able to ride any of the rides I wanted to ride and I stood in much longer lines for less desirable rides I could visit before with no serious wait times. For the money I didn't get my money worth those 4 days and I did't enjoy myself as I used to at WDW.

July 23, 2018 at 11:56 AM

The TL:DR should be, don't show up at WDW during lunch without a ticket already in hand.

The level of planning for a WDW vacation can be to whatever level you can tolerate, but understand, the more time you spend to plan and prepare, the more likely you will be able to do the things you want. The less planning you're willing to do, the more you will have to compromise - Don't want to arrive at DAK at rope drop or get online 30 days before you show up, expect to wait in 2-3 hours lines for FOP or ride something else.

Not only has it cost more to enter WDW, but the cost in time to prepare to visit WDW has grown exponentially. At some point, you need to decide whether a modest level of planning is worth it. If not, vacation somewhere else.

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