Wondering how to plan a Walt Disney World Vacation? It can all seem a little overwhelming. The first time my sister, Melanie, and I went to Walt Disney World together, it was a disaster. We had lists, backup plans, everything booked and in the end left absolutely no room for error, adjustments or all those things that actually happen in real life. To help you out, here’s your 12 step checklist from start to finish and a little piece of advice to get you through it.
That said, if this will be your first time at Disney you’re probably trying to troubleshoot everything. If it’s going to be your family’s Only Disney Vacation you will want it to be perfect. And If you haven’t visited in a couple years and need to brush up on the rules around fast passes, magic bands, magical express and the new My Disney Experience site and app, you’re probably feeling a little lost.
Hakuna Matata. We’re creating quick bite-sized posts about the basics, checklists, and our passport to the parks series will cover everything you need to know in each park. This post will get you started and we’ll keep adding content as it gets crafted. Ask questions if you got ’em. Let’s dive in.
>>STEP 1: Set Up your Disney Accounts<<<
It should be no surprise that Disney’s website is stellar. Creating all your accounts and adding all the family members for the first time may be a little daunting though.
Start here: https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/
Once on the site, these are a few things to know. You are the owner of your profile, and anyone else’s profiles you create on your account.
The fun part, you get to pick your character!
Create Your Disney Profile
- Create your own account with your own email.
- Send an invite link to every other family member ( spouse, children, relatives) that may be joining you and have them register on their own. You can later “find” that relative and add them to your ” Friends and Family” list.
- If you have young children, you can create their accounts under your email. Just be sure to make sure you turn off purchasing privileges with the magic band for these accounts.
Do not be helpful and add an account for your niece, grandmother, or husband…etc. This will make you the owner of their account. Which means any minor relative on your account will not be able to be modified by their own parent because you own their account. Your husband’s purchases at the Rose and Crown will come off your credit card attached to your account, and your grandmother won’t be able to managed by her husband. I know its confusing, but it will be worse if this rule is broken.
Best bet. Let everyone create their own accounts and connect them afterwards.
>>>STEP 2: Download Disney’s My Experience App<<<
Did you know Walt Disney World has an App? They do. Do not underestimate the power of this app. In recent weeks the app has changed so re-familiarize yourself with if you haven’t been to Disney in the last few weeks. Download the app called “My Disney Experience” onto your phone and sign into your account. This links completely with your account online, so if you’ve planned everything online in My Disney Experience, it’s all accessible in this app. This includes your fast passes, restaurant reservations, and tickets.
What Can you do in the My Disney Experience App? You can…
- Get tickets
- Make dining reservations
- Get a FastPass
- Cancel reservations
- Find something on the map
- See your Memory Maker photos
- Keep track of all your reservations, fast passes and dining reservations
- If you download the Shop Parks app, you can access it from this app also. If you’re in search of the Greetings from Walt Disney World coconut you can send home to your family.. the Shop Parks app is invaluable for finding out where the products you want can be found.
One of the best things about the app is that it shows wait times for rides which means you can show up at Walt Disney World without a plan and still have an amazing time.
>>>STEP 3: Choose When to Visit Disney<<<
What’s the best time of year to visit Disney? We are big advocates of “shoulder season” and “off season”. This would be anytime between September and March, though keep in mind Disney’s many festivals will have the place crowded during select weekends. You can check a variety of crowd calendars but we often find them conflicting. See this one for a general idea of weeks that are good to visit.
Shoulder season and off season in Florida means we get milder weather, less crowds, and a faster ride home on the bus at midnight. While we sometimes have to battle the rain which happens often in the fall and spring, it’s better than 15 hours, and 13 miles in the sweltering heat. I’m not exaggerating, at Disney we often have extremely long days and lots of walking- chances are you do too. Definitely something to consider if you’re toting little ones or older parents.
>>>STEP 4: Fly or Drive to Disney?<<<
Whether you’re heading to Walt Disney World or Disneyland, it’s really all about you. What can you stand? How much time do you have? Do you actually like driving? What time of year is it? What are you willing to give up? Time or Money or both?
Drive: Road Trips are a blast, but not if you’re travelling with a car load of small children, only have a few days off work to fit in a vacation or have to drive more than 24 hours and can’t afford to stop at a hotel on the way. Keep in mind this isn’t always cheaper! So if you’re driving to save money- think again. If you, however, like driving, plan to see a few other places along the coast on your way and have a week or more to commit then you’re good as gold- go ahead and drive. Check out https://www.carrentals.com/ for deals if you choose to drive and need to rent something. Also, take advantage of your fuel perks through whatever grocery/gas partnership is near you to get some of that gas for free.
Fly: It’s only recently we started flying every time we go to Disney, unless we’re wrapping it into another trip. Orlando, Florida is 23 hours from Cleveland, Ohio and while we are a road tripping family, we know better than to go up against the West Virginia roads tucked in the mountains in February or think we can make it without stopping at a hotel for the night. Also, when it takes almost 2 days to just get down there, we have less time to spend there- always heartbreaking.
Flying is 1.5 hours. For us, this is an easy choice. No extra hotel cost, no gas, no extra mileage onto our cars, and no frustrating weather/traffic experiences to endure.
Southwest is always our airline of choice, though we’ll fly Spirit if the price is right. If you sign up for Rapid Rewards at https://www.southwest.com/ you can earn points on everyday purchases if you link your bank card, credit cards, etc. We usually get a roundtrip flight from Ohio to Florida for about 220. During sales this price can go as low as 140 round trip. The key is to book early and don’t wait for the price to go lower. Try to book 45 days before or even farther out to get the best price.
>>>STEP 5: Where to stay at Disney?<<<
If you’re going back and forth on where to stay you have some options. You can airbnb, stay off- site, or stay on-site. There are pros and cons for each of these options so pick the one that’s best for you.
Rental / Airbnb
Pros: If you go with renting a home you have a little more freedom, can explore Orlando and can leave the disney craziness behind when the day is over.
Cons: You won’t be able to book dining or fast passes as early as people who stay on site, which means those things you want may not be available. You miss out on any package deals (free dining, discounts for staying on site, cheaper tickets). You have to drive in Orlando ( as opposed to having the Disney bus drivers do it for you).
Pros: Disney partner hotels are actually quite close to Disney. Many offer airport, and Disney Springs shuttle service so you can get close to the action. If you carry points at a certain hotel chain, you can use your points to offset your Disney Park tickets cost.
Cons: They are not Disney Quality. By this I mean they often have bugs- it’s Florida swampland folks- it’s a pretty standard occurrence for everywhere in Florida except Disney World. They aren’t necessarily cheaper than a Disney Resort. They don’t have an on-site food courts, bus service or service from the Magical Express.
Pros: They are on-site. They qualify you for early dining reservations and fast passes. If you are flying, the Magical Express will get you there and your bags will magically show up in your room. You’re washrags will be folded into little animals. You have access to the food court, pools, laundry house, gift shop, special Disney evening programs like movies, smores, and trivia.
Cons: Sometimes it can get a little crazy. Check the Orlando Sentinel to get a sneak peek at the non-Disney events that may be happening at Disney while you stay. You don’t want to end up at a resort that’s housing a high school band, or sorority event and be up all night. Note: You’ll see this mainly at the All Stars Resorts, since they’re the cheapest, but we’ve stayed several times there ( since All Stars Music is a favorite) without running into this issue. And if this does happen to you, Disney will do everything to make it right- just ask.
Check out our post about Onsite Or Offsite hotel options for more information.
You can also check out our growing list of Resort Reviews to help narrow down the choices.
>>>STEP 6: Commit and Book Your Disney Vacation<<<
How can you book a trip to Disney? Once you’ve made the decisions regarding all of the above, you can book a Disney Vacation right on the website: https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/ , connect with a Disney Vacation Planner, or book through a travel agent.
Maybe you’re not confident about doing this part on your own and just want to show up, reach out to a travel agent. If you’re trying to save every last penny, you can get tickets at a discount and have a Disney Vacation Planner help you connect the dots and craft your vacation.
However, if you’re confident about doing it yourself and want all the control, never fear, it’s actually not hard at all.
Booking a Disney Vacation Online
Here’s a couple things to know.
- Your computer will know you’re searching for a Disney Vacation after you visit the site. This means you’ll get higher prices each time you visit the site. So if you’re on analysis paralysis mode and expect to visit about 20 more times before making a choice, keep your computer cache monster at bay and be sure to clear your internet cache or check out rates from your phone or another computer.
- You’ll need a percentage down to reserve your package. This is usually 200- 500 dollars depending on which resort you choose.
- You’ll have the option of adjusting the number of days you have park tickets. So if you’re planning on getting in late, or just staying at your resort the first day or last day adjust your ticket days.
- Choose the Park Hopper( allowing you to go to multiple parks on the same day) or Park Hopper Plus ( to add waterparks) before going onto the next screen.
- Add a Dining Plan. Sometimes you can get the dining plan for free, so watch for those special dates throughout the year ( they’re usually announced the third week of April). You can read about the pros and cons of Disney Dining here.
- On the final page you can add special events, enter in your flight details so you can book the Magical Express ( a free service), and see your total amount.
Know that booking on your own through the site is sometimes cheaper than going with a service or travel agent. It also gives you complete control if you need to shift dates on our vacation or number of people. Any changes to your trip should be made 32 days in advance to avoid fees.
What Happens After You Book a Disney Vacation?
Now the magic begins. If you hired an agent chances are they’ve walked you through some of the details around fast passes, reservations, magical express, and special events.
If not, be ready for check in emails, choosing your magic band colors, and getting pointers by mail for what comes next. Disney will take care of you along the way.
>>>STEP 7: Choose your Magic Bands<<<
In My Disney Experience, click on my account, click magic bands and cards and select your magic band colors for yourself and your family. If you don’t pick your magic band colors, you will receive gray ones. If your trip is last minute and you don’t get your magic bands in the mail ( standard delivery practice) you will receive them when you check in at your resort. While you will get a new magic band every time you book a vacation, you can also link previous magic bands and specialty magic bands to your current account.
>>>STEP 8: If Flying, Book Magical Express<<<
Magical Express To Disney
If you’re flying in, you can book the magical express simply by checking the box on your reservations page. It’s free. If you’ve already booked, just jump back into your account “change reservation” and add the magical express, you can also do so by calling or chat.
Once you’ve shared your flight information on your reservation page Disney will automatically now when you are arriving and will link your magical express reservation to your magic band.
They will send you luggage tag tickets in the mail for each person in your party. Be sure to put this luggage on your luggage prior to going to your home airport. Once you check your luggage at your home airport the next time you will see this luggage is in your Disney Resort Room. You will not wait for it at the airport upon your arrival.
Magical Express From Disney
On the evening before your departure you will receive your Magical Express instructions in an envelope on your door. Guests have joked this sometimes feels like an eviction notice. This will tell you what time to leave your luggage at the check out station at your resort. You can still visit the parks on your last day- your luggage will safely find its way to the airport and onto your plane without you seeing it again until you arrive at your home airport. One thing to note. If you are taking a late flight, Disney may send your luggage ahead of time to your home airport. In the event that you don’t see your luggage on the carousel check in at the luggage office at your airport. Chances are its there safe and sound. If any of this sounds confusing, know that we’ve done this many times and have never lost our luggage, so no worries. Disney knows how to take care of you.
>>>STEP 9: Make Disney Dining Reservations<<<
Dining reservations become dog eat dog during Disney Free Dining time. That said, check out the WDWinfo reservation calculator to see how early you can make your reservations.
You can reserve dining up to 180 days in advance so if you’re a last minute planner, keep in mind that what you want on your choice day may not be available, for this reason, we suggest you Make Dining Reservations FIRST. Table Service is sit-down and includes Character Dining experiences at some restaurants. Quick Service is walk up and doesn’t require a reservation unless its a table service restaurant. For instance you can get a quick service lunch at Be Our Guest but you have to make a reservation to be there for lunch.
Once you’ve figured out at least 1 restaurant per day, you’ll be able to choose which park you’re going to visit and subsequently which fast passes to get.
>>>STEP 10: Book Your Fast Passes<<<
Here are the Fast Pass Basics.
- Your Fast Passes will be linked to your magic band. If you don’t have a Magic Band, they will be linked to your Park Tickets.
- On-Site Disney Resort Guests can reserve their Fast Passes 60 days before the start of their trip.
- Guests staying Off-Site can reserve their Fast Passes 30 days before the start of their trip.
- Annual Passholders can reserve Fast Passes 30 days before the start of their trip unless they are staying at a WDW resort then they have 60 days. Each guest is allowed 3 Fast Passes. Once you have used all 3, you can select 1 at a time as they are available.
- You used to have to go to the Kiosks in the Park to get more Fast Passes after using your original 3, however now it can all be done using the My Disney Experience App. Make sure you’ve got it on your phone!
- Some FP+ selections are considered tiered attractions. You only get 1 of these a day. For example, you cannot book the Seven Dwarves Mine Train and Frozen Ever After in the same day. So choose your top tiered FP+ wisely.
- You must have a ticket of some kind linked to your My Disney Experience account in order to book your Fast Passes.
- If a ride that you have Fast Passed breaks down before you can use your FP+, you will get another one automatically added to your My Disney Experience app so you can book another one.
- The FP+ allows you to cut the line during a 1 specific hour window; if you do not return to your FP+ attraction, then you will lose that specific FP+ but you will be able to schedule another one in its place.
- The FP+ lines are not always fast.
FP+ are not available during special events like the Halloween Party or during Extra Magic Hours.
>>>STEP 11: Plan Your Disney Extras<<<
You’ve nailed down your dining reservations which will determine which park you’re in on which day. You’ve used that info to help book your fast passes. Now for those special extras that will make your Disney Vacation special.
Which Disney Parades are the best? Should I watch ever fireworks show? What about Character Meet and Greets?
If you get to the point where you want to plan your days to the minute and need some good suggestions on what to see, do, and eat checkout these posts. These are by no means completely comprehensive but we promise they have a lot of good stuff you won’t want to miss.
Magic Kingdom: Coming Soon
Animal Kingdom: Coming Soon
Epcot: Coming Soon
Hollywood Studios: Coming Soon
Special Disney Events, Packages and Parties at Walt Disney World
While some people are keen on saving money on their Disney trip, other people are keen on trying out every new cool thing that is offered! If you’re in it for the experiences, check these out. Special events and parties DO COST EXTRA, but sometimes are totally worth it and can add an extra layer of adventure to your vacation. Check out these separate posts of our reviews.
Christmas Party: Coming Soon
Fireworks Dessert Party Tomorrowland Terrace: Coming Soon
Annual Festivals at Walt Disney World
We’re suckers for things we can look forward to every year, so annual events at Disney are right up our alley. Luckily they have several of these yearly events, all involving amazing foods that you can try as your stroll around the world showcase. Chances are your vacation will fall during a festival, so read up and make sure to check it out.
Fun Disney Extras to Know If You Stay On-Site
Resort Window Decorating: Did you know that you can, and are encouraged, to decorate your resort window? Whether it’s clings, paper art, or a full blown window display with twinkle lights this is a super fun side project for the kids to work on while you’re doing important vacation planning stuff, and helps build that sense of pride as a true Disney vacationer at your resort.
S’mores night: S’mores are offered as part of the evening campfire fun at the Beach Club Resort on the Boardwalk and Great Wilderness Lodge. You can however, just hop over to Beach Club at the end of your day at Epcot to join in on the fun, even if you’re not staying there.
Bike Rentals @ Select Resorts : 18 dollars per person, bikes are available from these resorts and allow you to meander about at your own pace.
What to Pack for your Disney Vacation?
Once you have all the specifics of your vacation planned you can concentrate on another important task, figuring out what to pack! This will depend on who is going, but take our word for it, the less the better. Florida is hot most of the time so simple clothes, tennis shoes and sunglasses or a hat are necessities. If you’re hitting the parks or hanging out in the pool you’ll need a bathing suit, but you don’t need your beach towel unless you have the extra room. Disney has beach towel caddy’s at every resort as well as the water parks.
What you need for your First Day at Disney: What you should pack in your Disney day bag.
Do you need a camera at Disney? If so, which one? Coming Soon
>>>STEP 12: Let It Go<<<
No matter what remember that Planning a Disney Vacation is supposed to be fun. If at any point you’re freaking out about not getting the right reservation, take a breath and let it go. All restaurants at Disney are good. All rides at Disney are good. Seeing the fireworks is still pretty magical even if you’re not in the right fireworks viewing location or stuck on the top of a broken down ride.
Our first trip down to Walt Disney World was disastrous because it involved a rental car that, because of some fine print about insurance, was going to cost about 600 dollars for the duration of a 4 day trip. Because my financial side got the better of me, I decided to return the car in Orlando and chose to wing it without a rental car until the last day when we needed one to get home. This meant depending on the Disney buses to get us everywhere we needed to be, this meant no emergency runs to the store for band aids or tampons, this also meant being about 45 minutes late to our first restaurant reservation. We were completely at the mercy of Disney. Little did we know everyone vacationed this way and needless to say the world did not end, and we realized we didn’t mind being trapped at Walt Disney World.
Know that your vacation will be amazing because its Disney and there’s no place like it on Earth.
We hope you have a great time planning and going on your Disney Vacation. Reach out if you have questions. We’re not travel agents or anything but we are annual passholders and disney bloggers and have visited enough to know what we’re talking about most of the time. Just let us know… and as always have a magical day! 🙂
TTFN, Melanie, Rochelle & G