The Walt Disney World Planning Guide
This Walt Disney World planning guide is useful to first-timers and regular visitors. Visiting the park without knowing the layout can be challenging. The most important decision is whether to stay and dine on-site or off-site, considering your budget. There’re plenty of options including cooking your own meals. Simple tip, to gain easy access to Walt Disney’s restaurant, bookings are done six months in advance. Finally, which theme parks to visit, experience to enjoy, and transportation within the park. Not to worry, this guide will explain all that and assist you in making decisions.
Walt Disney contains four theme parks, several golf courses, a sports complex, countless restaurants and 25 hotels; it’s more of a city than a vacation destination.
The Magic Kingdom is home to the classic ride Space Mountain, and is one of the best attractions. No Disney World trip is complete without a visit to The Magic Kingdom. Disney’s Hollywood Studios is movie-centric; Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, Beauty and the Beast, and many others. The Animal Kingdom Disney is a wonderland and animal reserve. Epcot features technological attractions and dining/drinking bonanza.
We include tips on saving time and money, escaping crowds, the best rides, selecting places to eat and sleep, and help you plan an itinerary for the Florida vacation. We’ll continually update the information to make sure you don’t miss out on anything.
Planning is complex although in the long run, it pays off. We’ve taken over a dozen trips and put together a lot of information. Our WDW101 narrows down on important aspects to make planning easier. Most people don’t know the real Walt Disney World until they arrive. The commercials showing everyone skipping around with Mickey Mouse, Daisy and Goofy are there to entice and attract you. The reality is there’s a lot to see and do there. Even going to rides is a hassle because of the queues. Without a plan, you might end up missing out on memorable events.
When it comes to movement around the park, the MagicBand is literally your key. It has microchips that store information about your park ticket, credit card, FastPass+ reservation, MyMagic+, and the photos you take. Although they’re not necessary because restaurant and shops accept cash and credit cards; they make visiting Walt Disney effortless. Disney resort guests receive complimentary MagicBands upon arrival. Park guests buy them when they visit for about $13.
Caveat. As much as we are fans, we highlight the good and bad, likes and dislikes and impartial tips for the Disney tour. You can also check out other sites that outline the Walt Disney’s positive and negatives.
So here’s what’s in store for our Walt Disney World planning guide:
- Best Time to Visit WDW
- How Long to Stay
- Park Tickets
- Where to Stay
- Booking a Vacation Package
- Airfare and Transportation
- What to Pack
- What Attractions to do
- Where to Eat
- Other Things to do
Feel free to skip around and bookmark this pege for later!
Where do we start?
You usually plan a vacation when it is most convenient for you. Well, Walt Disney World is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2021, which would be the perfect year to visit. Life is short so we don’t advocate for that. Instead, we’ll break down the events and seasons and help you decide whether it will be 2017, 2018 or 2019. Walt Disney is doing some construction at the Beach Resort, Disney Spring, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studio, and Colorado Springs Resort. The plan for Colorado Resorts is a 15-story tower with a rooftop restaurant and 500 rooms. Caribbean Beach Resort is expecting a waterfront restaurant and retail area which means more places to eat and sleep when you visit.
There is no construction at Magic and Animal Kingdom at this time but we’ll keep updating you. Walt Disney keeps changing so even if you plan your trip in 2018 or 2019, you might find some degree of construction going on. Our advice, stay at the resorts that don’t have running projects to avoid disruptions.
Let’s move on to the parks. Our Walt Disney World itineraries have recommendations on what to see and do every day at the park.
Pandora-The World of Avatar is Disney’s Animal Kingdom’s Newest land. Quite impressive, featuring big floating mountains, a massive pond near the entrance and plants of all shapes and sizes. The Pandora Conservation Initiative has rich detail of lab coats and mugs on the desks. The main attraction is the Avatar in the tank; view up close the ingenuity of Walt Disney. There are also little ‘aliens’ held up in smaller tanks. New features will include walkways that illuminate each time visitors walk on them, The Na’Vi River Journey (boat ride through a Bioluminescent forest) and Flight of Passage.
Magic Kingdom fireworks. “Yin & Yang” display was an unusual shape combination. There’s a wow moment when you see something awesome for the first time. “Happily Ever After” was recently shown at the Magic Kingdom lasting 18 minutes. Songs and animations of “Frozen”, “Incredible”, “Moana”, “Toy Story”, “Lightning McQueen”, “Tangled”, “Tiana”, and “Zootopia” made the fireworks magical.
Epcot. “Frozen Ever After” and “Soarin’ around the World” were major features in the summer 2016 and is still going strong. The popularity has enticed Walt to add a third theatre and incorporate high definition media for a brighter, clearer and immersive experience. Frozen fans should enjoy the Annual Food & Wine Festival at Epcot. After that, delve into Epcot International Festival of the Holidays.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios where the construction of Star Wars: Galaxy Edge and Toy Story, will continue until 2018 and 2019.
At the moment there’s a Galactic Spectacular (Star Wars show and fireworks) at the Disney Movie Magic. The Mickey and Minnie Railway is coming up in place of Great Movie Ride which was shut down. Presently, Disney’s Hollywood Studios rides aren’t strong; Don’t fret, there are other places to experience. The holiday season has come with Echo Lake Christmas and Sunset Season’s Greetings. The reviews for Tower of Terror were appealing and additions seek to support Christmas presence at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
There’s much to see at Walt so if you don’t have enough time, skip Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
Disney Springs, previously Downtown Disney, is the shopping and entertainment district. Construction projects are ongoing; more restaurants opening late 2017. The additions include Jock Lindsay’s Hangar Bar, Boathouse, Erin McKenna’s Bakery NYC, The Dedicated Ramp from 1-4 Morimoto Asia, Chapel Hats and the Parking Garage.
So far, 2017 is the best year to visit given all pros. Toy Story opens in summer 2018; it will feature Alien Swirling Saucers and Slinky Dog Dash. There is no set date although the Slinky Dog Dash Roller Coaster is complete and going through tests.
If you’re a Star Wars fan and decide to wait until 2019 for Galaxy Edge, you may end up missing other spectacular shows. If you’re looking at Memorial Day 2020, then go ahead and plan for the 50th anniversary in October 2021. The memories will be stupendous, given that Walt Disney tends to outdo its own expectations.
Disney values its guest and the staff are extra-friendly, helpful and will answer questions anytime. In case of problems, Guest Services centers are spread all over to fix nearly any issue. The park has its own lingo, read Disney glossary for translation.
For example, “We are staying and dining at AKL with the DDP.”
Translation “We are staying and dining at Animal Kingdom Lodge with the Disney Dining Plan.”
Best time to visit
The biggest impact on your trip is the crowd; don’t worry we’re here to help. Choosing the dates wisely will help you manage crowds. If you’re not willing to pull your children from school, your visit will coincide with school breaks. Unfortunately, those are the busiest periods because majority of guests face the same circumstances.
To manage crowds, get to the park earlier, take afternoon breaks and make use of wait-time apps. Find out the park hours as they tell you when the crowd level is low. The best seasonal events are set for Fall and Christmas.
The Food & Wine Festival and Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party are enjoyable and will certainly cost more money. We love Epcot’s winter and spring events; International Festivals of Arts and Flower & Garden Festival. November and December bring Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party which makes Christmas magical and a season to look forward to. The weather is nice, the parks beautiful, and the crowds light.
There are no seasonal events at the start of the year and mid-summer so it is hard to visit the park and miss an event. Consult the guides for appealing events and set vacation dates around them.
Some specific dates are January 9-13; February 27-March 2; August 15-September; most weekdays in October, November, and December except Thanksgiving and Christmas. The park is full around Halloween, but pure magic and on the park Labor Day people traffic is relatively slow.
How Long to Stay at Disney World
Walt Disney World is huge (40 square miles) and if you plan to visit every corner consider your budget and time. If you have Disney fans, they can specify the places to visit and estimate the number of days it will take. We recommend 7 or 8 days for first-time visitors. 1 or 2 days are enough to check out non-Disney destinations. Plan a relaxation day in the middle of your trip; the tour can be overwhelming. Theme parks to visit are Universal Studios Florida, Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Busch Gardens, and SeaWorld. Not forgetting, the beach, local outlet malls or Manatee watching. Don’t limit your enjoyment.
For golf enthusiasts, go putting at Golf at Disney’s Magnolia course which comes with Mickey Mouse Bunker. Soak in thrill rides at the Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach water parks.
If planning to visit in 2018, buy your tickets early at lower prices and take advantage of Disney World ticket discounts. The prices will increase as we head into the holiday season. Tickets come in two formats; single and multi-day, lasting two to 14 days. Unused tickets don’t expire, and you’ll save more money in case of increases. Walt Disney uses Flex Pricing with season tiers; Peak, Regular and Value. This affects one day visitors so avoid school breaks, national holidays or weekends as it will be expensive. “The longer you pay, the less you pay per day” Disney Mantra. The more days your park ticket covers the less it will cost you. Additional days after the 3rd day leads to decline in costs, hope you get the hint. Waiting to buy tickets at the front gates or eBay is a bad idea because you’ll lose out on the FastPass + attractions in advance.
The Disney ticket allows you access to Disney’s Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot and Hollywood Studios theme parks daily. Tickets with Park Hopper allow you to jump from park to park in one day. Park Hopper Plus gets you access to theme parks and extra Fun Visits. Every Disney ticket includes FastPass+ and MyMagic+. To utilize the FastPass+, each member needs to reserve a specific time for the individual ride. They help reserve rides, parades, shows and Disney Character Experiences before the beginning of the vacation. You can make up to 3 reservations each day. You can also make changes during the vacation with MyMagic+ and select FastPass+ options on My Disney Experience App on your phone.
Where to stay
The first key issue is whether to stay on-site on Walt Disney property or off-site which is driving distance from Walt Disney. The second issue is your budget; don’t go into debt as you enjoy yourself. Walt Disney hotel offers great benefits and compels many guests to use them. The resorts are in three tiers. Let’s identify some of the resorts; Deluxe tier (Contemporary Resort and Animal Kingdom Lodge), Moderate tier (Port’s Orleans Riverside and Colorado Spring) and Value tier (Art of Animation Resort and All-Star Music Resort). The Deluxe Villa Tier means “timeshare room”. Choose the best hotel according to your budget and family size.
The MyMagic+ programs (trip planning program) include Magic Bands, FastPass+ and Memory Maker. Disney hotel guests make FastPass+ reservation 60 days before their trips. This determines whether or not you’ll queue for long hours daily. It’s advisable to buy park tickets in advance to avoid disappointments.
Staying in the resorts is convenient and closer to the parks and gives you the ability to access other benefits. Transportation is complimentary; room price inclusive. Walt Disney resort guests have the advantage of enjoying certain parks in the early morning and late evening hours. Extra Magic Hours grant you additional hours at the park in the morning and evening. To get access, one must scan their MagicBand as proof that they’re staying at Walt Disney hotels.
Surprisingly, people with a small budget might find it better to stay on-site while those with a big budget off-site. Essentially, it’s cheaper to stay in an off-site hotel. The hotels are competing for customers meaning lower charges for you. They are far away from the park and can’t give the same immersive vacation experience. The “Disney Bubble”, where nothing else but Disney matters. Guests reserve FastPass+ 30 days in advance and often miss out on popular events like “Frozen Ever After”, “Seven Dwarfs Mine Train” or “Toy Story Mania”, which are sold out within hours or days. Off-site hotels don’t give you as much value as the Disney resort; however they do have exceptional bargains and last minute deals.
Disney’s Contemporary Resort has a pathway directly to Magic Kingdom. There’s a pedestrian entrance from Beach Club Resort, Yacht Club Resort, Walt Disney Swan, Dolphin, to Epcot World Showcase.
Another benefit is that accommodation is tailored to meet your family size and requirements. If you’re using Airbnb or a rental home, you save money and still enjoy Disney World.
When traveling with family, research to ensure proper scheduling and plan for buying souvenirs for those interested (especially kids).
Booking Vacation Packages
DisneyWorld.com is popularly known for direct booking for Disney vacations. It combines hotel, dining, and park tickets. You might be lucky and get awesome savings off rack rates; other times you’ll just pay full price for the trip and its accompaniments. You can save money with vacation packages and avoid on-site pricing. Contact a travel agent for the best vacation package and especially look at those who primarily specialize in Disney related bookings because of their knowledge of the nuances of Walt Disney vacations. There are ‘no fee’ agencies; just the same way it doesn’t cost to book through Disney. They usually receive a commission from Disney. Tip: Don’t use AAA; just because agents are knowledgeable it necessary mean you should use them. You can get a ‘ticketless package’ only through them or directly from Disney.
Standard full-price price vacation packages don’t save you much. It’s much better to book a ‘room only’ (with a discount), then buy tickets and meals separately. Use a no fee ‘Authorized’ Disney Vacation Planner if your trip might be unusual and can’t pick a specific package. You receive a good quote and plenty of assistance in planning. It feels good when the hassle of planning is taken off your shoulders. Utilize My Disney Experience which organizes your hotel, dining, ticket reservations and FastPass+ in one place. It also helps you pinpoint character-meet-and-greets and observe ride wait times.
Disney packages have advance payment, cancellation rules and are restrictive about changes. Current package options are Disney’s Magic Your Way; Disney’s Magic Your Way + Quick Service Dining Plan; Disney’s Magic Your Way + Deluxe Dining Plan; Walt Disney Annual Passholder with Dining and Ticketless package with Dining.
Booking Air Fare and Transportation
The right website for finding cheap airfare is ITA Software by Google. Their search engine is robust although you can’t book with them, you have freedom to choose from any airport that offers better pricing and select best calendar dates for travel. Buy your tickets early if you plan to travel during peak periods such as Christmas, Thanksgiving and Spring Break. If you’re not particular about the dates, signup with Airfarewatchdog. It will send you daily emails when a good travel deal pops up. You’ll receive a list of upcoming cheap airfare to different destinations from your home airport. Other websites that can assist in finding low fares are Orbitz and Expedia.
Complimentary transport is available for Disney Resort guests and your luggage is brought straight to your rooms. For those not using the Disney Resort, Mears Transportation has a shuttle from the Orlando Airport. The shuttle is also popular for those staying at Walt Disney Swan and Dolphin. Buses, monorails, and boats are present for movement from park to park.
You can rent a car if you plan to visit destinations outside of Walt Disney. For resort guests, parking is free meaning you save cash for a couple of days. Otherwise, Disney has complimentary transportation to the parks and airport. Sometimes, Disney transportation can disappoint and you can opt for alternatives like Lyft, Minnie Van Service and Uber.
What to pack
If you pack carefully you can save cash and improve your experience at Walt Disney World. You have to be particular about what you’re carrying. After searching the internet and magazines, these are some necessary item to carry;
Frogg Toggs Rain Suit & Chilly Pads – amazing towels that can be cool and dry simultaneously. After rinsing with water the towel becomes cooler. When hot, wet the towel, wring it out and it will cool you down, as your experience Walt Disney. The rain coat is made with a lightweight and breathable material and will fully protect when the rain pours.
USB Wall Charger, Compact External Charger, and extra battery – you’ll be posting a lot of selfies, making FastPass+ reservations, texting your travel companions and all this will strain your phone. Phones and batteries charge via USB nowadays.
Poncho/ Rain Jacket – Weather is unpredictable even with daily forecasts. In Orland, rain is always a possibility regardless of the month and we don’t want you falling ill in the middle of the tour.
Discounted Disney Pin – a fun experience. Buying pins before the trip will cost you $1, during the trip the price is higher. Pin collecting is widespread and many are valuable to the extent of selling them at a higher than original price.
Autograph Book Substitute – Junior Character Encyclopedia where character sign the book with info about more than 150 Disney characters. An excellent keepsake for kids, especially if they don’t visit Disney World again.
Parade Blanket – while waiting for parades these serve as good substitutes to sit on instead of sitting on the ground. They’re pocket-size, water and puncture resistant and can be used in other places outside Disney.
Sun Bum Stick Sunscreen – while rather pricey, it will shelter you from sunburns. You’ll not look red in your photos and the stick has a delicious smell.
Water bottle – walking around for long periods can lead to dehydration. You can’t afford to miss out on the fun at The Magic Kingdom. Free ice water is available at any Counter Service restaurant. A reusable water bottle will ensure continuous water supply.
A comfortable good pair of shoes – or sandals that will support your feet as you move around. Blisters will cause you to miss part of the vacation or cut it short. Carry some balm that can soothe blisters. Include Hydro Sports Shoe and Moisture Wicking socks for when it rains or gets your feet soggy in Splash Mountain ride. Moleskin Padding Roll will save your feet from discomfort and pain.
Compression bags or Packing cubes – great for organizing clothes properly especially on longer trips. You can use whichever you’re comfortable with. Utilize pop-up hamper for hanging dirty laundry while staying at a hotel.
Camera – what is a Walt Disney trip without memorable photos? The meet-and-greet photos are excellent keepsakes.
Energy snacks – try caffeine mints, Starbucks VIA Ready Coffee, Cliff Energy Bars, and Beef Jerky.
Which attraction to do
New and frequent Disney World guests spend time planning itineraries. Booklets and spreadsheets indicate in great detail every step to be taken out. Murphy law states “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” Even if you stress yourself planning, something might go wrong and it’s important to be ready to adjust when that happens.
Walt Disney World is full of crowds and you can expect long lines. An itinerary will ensure efficiency and not missing out on attractions. Tip: Be at the entrances early before the park opens to avoid the queues and make the most of your day. Read the Disney Parks Ride Guides and jot down the attractions you want to attend and where to book the FastPass+.
If you have small children, take advantage of the Rider Switch. Some members of the group ride while others supervise the younger guests. They wait in a separate area so that they can make the switch easily. The Rider Switch is not available for all rides.
There other important things to consider;
- Attractions that have height restriction, those traveling with children should make early enquiries.
- How to use FastPass+,- ‘reserve’ 3 select attractions in advance and avoid queues.
- If you have a Frozen-obsessed fan in your group, find out when and where the ‘Frozen’ stuff is going down and attend.
- Book the FastPass+ early to ensure you get in on the popular attractions.
Let your plan be flexible and make room for spontaneity. Surprises might come up, be ready to grab them. Willing to spend some extra cash, pay for a private tour of specific parts of the Disney Park. If you’re celebrating your birthday, anniversary or first-time visitor, inform a ‘cast member’ and get a free button. The kids get fee experiences like Jedi training at DHS.
Best thing to do at Animal Kingdom consist of Kilimanjaro Safaris where you can view the nocturnal activity of at least 34 animal species including lions, rhinos, hyenas, antelope and zebra. The after-dark safari is distinct and captivating. Vehicles will use a different route and stop for long periods for guests to view the animals. Rivers of Light show was full of colorful fountains, water screens, dazzling imagery, and inspired music. A Galactic Spectacular is complete with lasers, choreographed pyrotechnics and mapped scenes from Star Wars Saga. Mickey is hosting a stage show featuring Frozen’s Anna and Elsa, Rapunzel, Princess Tiana and other favorite toons. Passengers can sail in Frozen Ever After to Arendelle and meet Anna & Elsa at their summer house.
The Soarin’ around the World has three theaters which incorporate high-definition media for a brighter and clearer experience.
Space mountain riders ascend a 180 feet tall mountain in the dark then come down startling twist and turns. Apart from a few screams, the guests see comets shooting across the sky and hear futuristic sounds. The ride is meant to feel like being on a real space flight.
The Toy Story Midway Mania has the longest wait times. Guests try to play classic midway games that feature “Toy Story” characters. The 4D shooting gallery highlight 5 games of skill. Each has an “Easter egg” that changes the game play and offers more targets. Disney Hollywood Studios continues to add tracks to accommodate more guests.
Built with mud and steel the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is a wild ride in the wildness. Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster is the fastest in Walt Disney World. In a minute it can go from 0 to 60 miles. It then sends guests upside down 3 times. It features different Aerosmith songs. The “super stretch limos” guest board have license plates with distinctive messages like BUHBYE, H8TRFFC, UGOGIRL, 2FAST4U, AND 1QKLIMO.
Haunted Mansion is a spooky attraction featuring strange creatures and weird illusions. Fantasmic is a 30-minute show featuring laser lights, pyrotechnics, projections and gallons of dancing water. Visitors can buy Minnie Mouse Headbands, Mickey Mouse Gloves, and a Sorcerer Mickey Wand. At the end of the show, 26 characters appear in the Steamboat Willie.
The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride whisks guests into the opulent Hollywood Tower Hotel. The hotel was shut down after a mysterious incident on a 1939 Halloween night. An elevator was struck by lightning and fell to the ground floor. “Twilight Zone” host Rod Sterling and Mark Silverman narrate the scene to the guests.
The Everest Expedition stands at 199 feet. The trains travel forward and backward along the Himalayan Mountains, while evading the clutches of the Yeti. The Splash Mountain (Zip-a-Dee River Run) is a long ride with 3 dips and a 5-story splashdown.
Where to eat
Disney is not all about fast food; burgers, hotdogs and French fries. It has wonderful dining places you can experience. Enjoying a good meal can make the trip memorable. On the other hand, bad meals leave people complaining and giving bad reviews. Research on the options and the food they offer. Some of the best restaurants include RaglanRoad pub with Irish dishes. Sanaa, specializes in African and Indian dishes and Boma, which offers all-you-can-eat buffet. For casual meals try Sunshine Seasons, Flame Tree Barbeque, Yorkshire Country Fish Shop, Tangierine Café, and Earl of Sandwich.
Most first time visitors are torn on dining subject. The Disney Dining Plan can be an add-on to your package. It consists of breakfast and lunch with including entrée and beverage. Dinner comes with beverage, dessert, and entrée. Finally two snacks per day, to keep the stomach from growling before lunch and dinner. For better treats enquire about secret menus at restaurant.
The prices of Disney meals can be exorbitant and if on a tight budget look for other options. Money saver tip; September is Orlando’s restaurant month making it cheap to stay and eat at the park. At Club Cool, fill your cup with free soda from around the world like Italy’s butter Beverly and Peru’s fruity Inka Cola. Not willing to visit restaurants, pack a picnic and spread a blanket at Tom Sawyer Island.
Why not make your own meals instead. Grocery delivery will buy whatever you need and even deliver to Walt Disney Hotels. If you like cost-effective beer, they deliver it too.
There are places off-site you can eat at like Gaylord Palms, (5 miles from Epcot); Loew’s Hotel Properties; Hilton Bonnet Creek and Waldorf Astoria; Swan and Dolphin and Four Seasons Resort Orlando.
What else to do
The RunDisney- distance events at multiple parks. They bring in crowds and tend to limit hotel availability. Currently, Walt Disney World hosts four; Marathon Weekend, Princess Half Marathon Weekend, Star Wars Marathon and Wine and Dine Half Marathon weekend.
There is so much more to do, see and experience at Walt Disney World. It’s up to you.