Plan Your Trip

My first trip to Walt Disney World was for my college graduation- although Florida had been my favorite family vacation as a child, I had never been to a Disney Park and could not wait.  We went to a local travel agent and told her our budget- she handled everything including our flights and dining reservations.

In the years since that first trip the nature of traveling and specifically Disney trip planning has changed incredibly.  The implemented technology and the extent to which you can book online have  changed the face of planning any trip.  I have visited Disney Parks from coast to coast and I have written hundreds of articles and helped countless family and friends plan their vacations.  While these “credentials” may not seem like something to set me apart from the masses of other Disney travel authors, I have one very important trait that creates an important niche:

 I do not live in Florida.

You are probably asking yourself, “Why does that matter?” right about now and it matters for the most important reasons why this is the place for you! Most of the major Walt Disney World travel guides and websites are written by and run by people who live in Florida and/or have annual passes to Disney each year.  They have the means to visit the parks whenever they like and in many ways they resent the average traveler and avoid them at all costs! Often in the past reading these guides has made me nervous as I plan my vacation and occasionally taken away from the fun of planning.  Afterall, how can you write a guide for the everymouse Disney traveler when you yourself avoid the times they can be found in the parks?  Most of these guides provide long lists of don’ts instead of showing you the way to do all you want.  Then, the guides which provide short summaries and information only do not quite offer the right amount of information to help you properly plan your trip.  There has been no happy medium until now.
Like many other travelers to what is probably the world’s number one vacation destination, I have to fly to Florida and being a schoolteacher my time off is limited to what are usually “high crowd” times of the year.  The combination of this creates the perfect mix for being able to help other couples and families who are planning their vacation at the happiest place on Earth.  I live in New York and even though as time has gone by I have been able to “wing it” and throw together rather last minute trips, in the end I am a planner and fine tune the most important details before we even make our final payment. Of all the things you will find in this guide, positivity is number one because in the end where there is a will there is a way when it comes to Disney vacations and as I use this as a true guide and lead you through all you need to know about Walt Disney World trip planning I will help you find what is right for you and your family. 

Before you begin I wanted to let you in on a little secret about Disney fansites: One of the most overwhelming things about planning a Disney trip is when you start googling and meandering around the web there are HUNDREDS of fan-run sites. Many of these sites simply regurgitate information that can be found on the Disney Official website. While some sites are run by amazing individuals some are out to make money off of advertising or lure you into booking with their agency. Over the past few years the official Disney Parks website has added remarkable amounts of extra information! You can find maps, calendars, menus, video tours, and tons of info about parks and attractions (including the ability to get quotes and book your trip right there) all on the Disney website! If you are looking for parks news head over to the Disney Parks Blog and find that official information straight from the mouse’s mouth! Save scouring fansites for after your trip when you get hit with those Post Disney Blues! For the time being, however, stay with me for a lovely and concise picture tour of these fun and amazing parks. ;) 

When you first begin planning a Walt Disney World vacation it can seem so overwhelming that you feel like your head is going to spin. There is a lot to consider and a lot to plan but as long as you keep an open mind, remember to have fun, and are flexible your dream vacation is waiting for you in sunny Florida!

I think the ideal time to determine when you are going to Disney is 7 months or more in advance but you can follow these steps in order no matter when you begin your planning!

7 months+
There are some important and basic questions that you need to answer for yourself the moment you begin to plan:
What is my budget? Determine what amount of money is an amount you would HAPPILY spend. If you plan a $4,000 vacation but really only wanted to spend $2,500 youare upping the ante as to your expectations.  Remember your budget should include: hotel, tickets, airfare, dining, souvenirs, and tips!
Which resort level will I be comfortable in AND comfortably afford? There is a lot of information on the web but the descriptions you can find in the Hotel section here and on the official Disney Parks website offer what you need to know to determine (1) which hotels tickle your fancy and (2) which hotels you can afford.
What time of year is ideal for my family or group? I am about to go against what the majority of other travel guides will tell you to do but it is important that you understand the truth behind this. The most crowded times of the year in Disney are when school is out but that DOES NOT mean you should rule these times out as far as visiting! Go to Disney when it is the easiest for you- if that is during Christmas Break or Spring Break or Summer than so be it! You can always adjust your plans for the day no matter what time of year (more tips for this in the park section)! Any and all times at Walt Disney World are magical with the right attitude!
Which tickets are perfect for our needs? I always suggest Park Hopper tickets.  They work great for splitting up your day between two parks because Park Hopper tickets allow you to “hop” from park to park as many times as you would like in any given day.  (The busy and hot times of year you often need that break in the day or change.)  Plus, sometimes even though I started my day at Animal Kingdom I want to eat in Epcot and then go see Wishes. There are other options worth considering such as Annual Passes (I find getting at least one of these for your party if you are staying for 8+ days is worth it for the possible food and merchandise discounts, plus future hotel discounts).  There is also an optional Water Park & More add-on which may be right for your families plans and worth looking into if you were planning to visit a water park or Disney quest during your trip.  Check out all the ticket options on the Walt Disney World website for the most current prices.

Once you have answered the above questions there is only one thing left to do: put down your $200 deposit!  Congratulations on booking your Disney World trip!

6 Months to go!  
Before we move on to the next phase, which is planning your DINING it is important you understand how booking Advanced Dining Reservations (ADRs) works at Walt Disney World.  You can book your ADRs 180+10 days in advance.  I know, I know... that is confusing in its own right.  BUT Disney math is much easier than it seems.  It simply means for trips 10 days or less you can book ALL of your dining reservations 180 days before your arrival day.  (If you are staying longer than 10 days you will have to wait a little longer to book the dining for days 11 on.)  So the first thing you should do if you are over 6 months out is figure out your when 180 days from your arrival day is because this is the day to make those hard to get reservations.

Start by using travel guides and the resources online to determine where you want to eat.  If you are staying at a Deluxe resort I suggest trying to take advantage of at least one meal in your hotel or hotel area as the Epcot and Monorail resort areas truly have a lot to offer! Trying using the search feature here Picturing Disney for images of restaurants you are looking at also! Consider that the Disney World website allows you to choose by cuisine or experience as well to help you narrow it down.

Once you know WHERE you want to eat, its good to determine WHEN you want to eat.  Since me and my husband travel as a couple we like to pair our dinners with parks that have evening Extra Magic Hours (EMH) but I know there are a lot of people who do just the opposite or who have a certain sequence of parks that their family enjoys.  It’s all about how many sit down restaurant meals you have worked into your budget and where your family would have the best time.  Since by around this time the Park Hours calendar will be out on the Disney World website you can give it a look also to make sure you are happy with where you will be dining in relation to the parades and events you want to see.

After you have chosen the restaurants you want to eat at and which days you want to make your reservations for its time to make the call!

You can book Dining in 1 of 3 ways: 
Call yourself 1-407-WDW-DINE I actually quite enjoy making my own Dining Reservations and calling WDW in general. 
Use the Disney Reservations web or mobile site (or app) We have used the website a few times and it is really great, especially when you aren't certain what you want but you know you want to do a character meal or something like that. 
Use a Travel Agent Using a Disney Travel agency can alleviate a lot of the hardest parts of planning a trip to Walt Disney World.  (If you are looking for a recommendation, my favorite agent is also one of my favorite people ever- come check her out!) Dining reservations are just one of many things they can book for you and they do it all for free because they work directly with Walt Disney Travel Co! 

5 Months to go! 
Now that you have settled a lot of your plans you have to make that budget work so while you are reading up on all the fun attractions, events, and shows in your future keep that budget in mind and continue to save, save, save! Here are my best tips for saving money:

If your local grocery store sells Disney Gift Cards a great way to "earn" trip money is to cut coupons and shop sales, then purchase a gift card for the amount from your grocery budget that you saved.  For example, I stock up on certain things at wholesale stores and buy produce from a local farmer's market store.  This saved me at the end of the month and I end up with $25-50 left from what I have budgeted for groceries.  Over the course of 5 to 6 months I will acquire somewhere between $200-300 in Disney gift cards!  If you are a member of any of the big wholesale stores you can get also often get 5% off your gift card purchases there!

Use credit cards with awesome rewards! Disney Visa offers 1% back in Disney Dollars AND 0% APR for 6 months on vacation financing.  American Express offers a JetBlue rewards card that earns you points towards free flights AND makes the points you have never expire as long as you use your card just once a year! The Southwest card from Chase was another one that I opened, made one purchase on, redeemed my points for 2 roundtrip flights to Florida and then canceled after we traveled.  Discover also has a travel card that offers direct credits on purchases made on trips! Look into what is being offered, what is best for you and use credit cards to YOUR benefit!

Use websites to your advantage! There are quite a few sites and apps where you get rewarded just for shopping sites you are already planning to shop on as long as you click through their main hub (ie. Ebates or Sunshine Rewards). They are amazing- I earned a $25 Disney Gift Card for the online Christmas shopping I was doing already! And Ebates give you a $5 bonus for signing up! Also, if you are crafty make some money with your hobbies! I love being creative and sell on Etsy all the time. And don't forget Ebay for selling items you are looking to get rid of anyway.

Make an extensive budget- especially if it is your first trip! Account for meals in the airports and snacks and souvenirs for you and your family and for people you plan to send things back for! Plan in your budget for travel essentials and even travel guides.  The better understanding you have of what you are paying the better you can save for it!

Chances are a holiday or a birthday will come rolling through while you are saving... ask family and friends for Disney Gift Cards or cold hard cash! My parents have given us the awesome Christmas gift of Photopass Preorders and even tickets in the past! It is an awesome gift and they know it makes me happy!

You are giving yourself the best gift ever and you can live without the wants.  Settle on the needs and save the money you may have pissed away shopping for sport or hanging out.  Make dinners for instead of going out and on a Friday night.  Stay in and have a movie night instead of going to the theatre.  You are about to go on an amazing adventure and it will be priceless- trust me!

4 Months to go!
You have booked your trip, planned your budget, made your dining reservations, and now you need to work on travel! Depending on where you live you will find different airlines with the best options for your dates and times (we almost always use Jet Blue and I can not say enough great things about them). Although we usually do not book our flights until we are closer to three months out I always find the flight I am planning to book and get my details in order.  I also install the airline app on my phone (I have done this with both Jet Blue and Southwest) and sign up for the email alerts. 
Occasionally you will find a sale price that will pop up for certain few days only and its good to be in the know.

Its good to also know that TUESDAY is usually the cheapest day to buy airline tickets (this tip has saved me from $10-75 in past flight bookings)! Also keep in mind the TIME OF YEAR you are flying.  By 4 months out if you see a decent rate for a heavy flight season (like Spring Break or 4th of July week or Christmas week) book now! These flights may fill up sooner and drive prices up up up!

Once you have booked also keep in mind to check your flights prices.  If you catch it drop and call the airline often you can get a refund for what you paid.  I have done this twice- once on Delta and once on Jet Blue and they were happy to oblige by the sale!  Also be sure to contact your Disney Travel Agent or Disney directly if you booked on your own and add your flight info so you can use the incredibly helpful shuttle service to and from Orlando International Airport called Disney's Magical Express!

3 Months or less to go!
By the time you are under 100 days to your trip you should first stop and have a 30 second dance party for hitting double digits in your countdown!

At this point all your details should be squared away so if they aren't: get your vacation booked, your dining reservations booked, save and budget your money, and book your airfare.   This is the time where I bask in the awesomeness of picking up travel sized items when I am grocery shopping, pick out some new clothes or accessories for my trip, and overall start to think about the everyday stuff (will I carry my camera bag separate or get a bigger crossbody bag? do I need to grab new flip flops or a new bathing suit?).  You don't want this stuff to catch up with you at the last minute especially if you are traveling with kids and end up stressed so get it out of the way early! Plus it brings a little magic to your day!

There really aren't any logistical things to do if you have gotten all your bases covered so you, my friends, you are in the final countdown!
You are all booked and paid! You have shopped and saved!
And now its time only for confirmations and then a magical adventure! Around this time you should double check all your reservations (hotel and dining can be checked using the Disney online service) and you should either fill out some kind of spreadsheet or your phone’s calendar app with day-by-day information and confirmation numbers. You should give park hours a double check and change anything you need to change now.  Also, feel free to book any last minute ADRs, tours, or other excursions!

All that’s left to do is pack, travel, and have a magical vacation!

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