So calling this post's title of "Disney World Trip Planning 101" is a bit misleading because it implies that this list is everything you need to know to start planning your Walt Disney World vacation... and, it's not. Instead, it's an example of the process that I go through when I start planning my vacations... but that title was just too long, so I'm sticking with the 101.
The way I plan my trips tends to be a little different than the mainstream because I tend to be a bit... assertive... when it comes to planning anything and my approach to vacation planning reflects that. I know my approach won't work for everyone, and will look downright overwhelming to many, but I thought it was time I share my "secrets" (also, not really secrets) because I get asked about them a lot. In fact, I have become the de facto volunteer trip planner for many family, friends, and coworkers over the last two years! So, if you tend to be assertive, like me, please keep reading! This approach just might be for you!
First, a little back story to set the stage on my experience and why you should/shouldn't listen to anything I have to say:
I visited the parks three times as a child, 1986, 1989, and 1991. But trips to Walt Disney World back then were totally different than they are now. For one, there were only three parks (Magic Kingdom, MGM, and EPCOT). You didn't need dining reservations, you just walked up to a restaurant and put your name on the list in the morning when you arrived at the park. You also didn't really wait in line to meet the characters, they sort of just roamed around. If this is your vision of what a Walt Disney World vacation is, and you are about to plan your first trip as an adult, let this be an intervention: that is not how the parks are anymore. Advance planning is (in my opinion) crucial to doing all the things you probably want to do. There are Advance Dining Reservations for meals, and FastPass+ selections for rides and character interactions. Oh, and there are four parks now, well... four-and-a-half, if you count the new FantasyLand expansion in Magic Kingdom. All this makes planning a Walt Disney World vacation way more complex than it used to be.
Of course, I didn't realize all that when I scheduled my first trip as an adult in 2011. My husband was working on a freelance design contract down in Florida, flying home every other weekend, and I thought it might be nice to take the kids down to see him and swing by Disney World while we were there. That trip quickly expanded to include my mom and some overlap with my cousins who were already planning on being there during that time. Ultimately, it ended up being eleven days total and we visited all the Disney World parks, plus Universal and Seaworld. (You can see the 2011 itinerary here).
I learned a lot from that trip: mainly, that you can't eat at any of the "good" restaurants anymore without an Advance Dining Reservation, and that you simply can't get ADRs without a lot of advance planning and/or being persistent.
Later that same year, I was asked by a friend and coworker to help plan her "Family Moon", a trip for two adults and four children for four days, and it was in planning that vacation that I learned more about the offerings available from Disney for large groups.
To test that new knowledge, I planned a trip in 2013 for my family, my mom, and my cousin's family--- that's nine people total, for nine days to just the Walt Disney World theme parks --- this time taking advantage of the 160 day Advance Dining Reservation booking system. (That itinerary can be viewed here.)
Not to be outdone... by myself... the trip I am currently planning for 2015 for five people will involve a total of six separate hotel reservations at four different hotels over the course of nine days. Phew!
Are you sensing a trend? Every trip I plan becomes more and more complicated. And in between these big planning activities, I am often asked for help plan smaller, less complicated trips, or just for ad-hoc bits of advice by friends, family, and coworkers. It's gotten to the point where I am getting more requests from friends whom I'd like to help than I have time to answer, thus part of why I started this blog (plus for the awesome princess rants, of course!)
So, here we go, the "secret" to my trip planning method in 8 easy steps... 'easy' steps, that is!
STEP ONE: SELECT THE TRAVEL DATES
When should you do this? At least 200 days out! Earlier is better!
I always start by selecting the travel dates. There are many reasons why you might pick certain dates over others: Disney frequently runs promotions for certain times of the year that can really save you a lot of money, then there's always work/school obligations that might limit your vacation time choices, family events, or perhaps you want be at the parks for a particular holiday (we've inadvertently done Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Halloween!)
One thing you should be aware of is that the hotels/parks cost more on certain days of the week (if you're in the Disney Vacation Club you know that rooms on Fridays and Saturdays cost more points than Sunday-Thursday). So, if you can, being there on a weekday is advantageous for many reasons (both financial and in terms of generally lower crowds).
Regarding duration of trip, this is something that also hinges on a couple of factors. I usually make a list of what parks I want to visit and how many days I plan to spend in each, and then see if that's financially feasible / works with my work schedule.
Regardless of why you're picking the dates that you are, I always recommend checking them against a crowd calendar. There are lots and lots available online to choose from. I try to check more than one to average their suggestions out. The two that I like best are:
Why do I say you should do this about 200 days out--- isn't that a long time? No, it's not a long time! At least, not in the world of Disney Trip planning, as I will explain later on when I get into ADRs.
Once you have your travel dates, go ahead and book the hotel of your choice. (Which hotel is right for you? Gosh, that's a long conversation for another day, I think!)
STEP TWO: CREATE YOUR IDEAL ITINERARY
When should you do this? Between the time you book your hotel and 191 days out
If you made a wish list of parks you want to visit and how many days you want to be in each, then congrats, you've already started creating your Ideal Itinerary. But there's a lot more to it than just that. Your trip experience might consist of scheduled meals, scheduled activities, special events, character meet&greets, and more! This all depends on what you and your group like to do, which is why I start by asking everyone I'll be traveling with what are the things that they most want to do.
I then take those lists and organize them by what most people want to do (group must haves), and what only one person wants to do (divergent itinerary). I arrange them by park to reduce park hopping, and figure out what wishes will get cut based on the number of days we're planning for each park.
Just a quick note about park hopping. Park hopping is great! Disney has excellent transportation options for getting you to and from one park to the other, and it's a great way to rest in AC and break up a long day in one park. But right now I have two little kids, and moving from park-to-park for us on our 2011 trip was not-so-relaxing, to say the least. On our 2013 trip we tried to minimize the park hoping and I felt that it made us much more productive. To accomplish this, however, I had to make sure that our wish lists and reservations were scheduled to match up with the parks' Extra Magic Hours. I've recently been told by a consummate expert that spending the whole day in the same park that has evening Extra Magic Hours is a terrible plan because the crowds are 30-100% longer, but you have to weigh that with the time and hassle of getting on/off buses with kids and strollers and such.
Look, I warned you that this approach isn't for everyone, didn't I?
I use two resources at this stage, the Walt Disney World website and an excel spreadsheet. Well, three resources if you count Google. The WDW site is a great research tool, it has descriptions of every thing you need to know about to make decisions. You can add family members and share favorites with them--- adding favorites is important, too, because it makes making reservations fast and easy!
My excel spreadsheet at this stage in the process looks something like this:
It's a work in progress. I am able to quickly move things around to design day plans, jotting down notes such as events that are only held on certain days of the week, etc. But none of the day assignments are written in stone because at this point I don't know what the Park Hours are going to be yet. The Park Hours are released around the 190 day mark (though somehow Kenny the Pirate gets a hold of them earlier than that, so be sure to check out his site!). This is when you'll find out which park is having Extra Magic Hours and when. Which is really important if you're staying on property because EMH's are times when the park is open only to the small number of guests staying in Disney resorts. Crowds are manageable, lines are shorter, you definitely want to take full advantage of the EMH's whenever you can! My goal is to have my days all planned out prior to the 190 mark.
STEP THREE: ONE-HUNDRED-NINETY-DAYS (or, "OMG, THE EXTRA MAGIC HOURS SCHEDULE WAS JUST POSTED!")
When should you do this? 190 days!!!
The 190 day mark is pretty exciting around my house. OK, pretty exciting pretty much just to me at my house. Each morning the new days' schedule is posted and I can't help myself from checking it daily and updating my excel chart. I know, I know, lame. Wait to the end, you say, and see all the EMHs at once? Pshaw! I don't have the patience for that!
For my family, because we are not morning people, I pretty much ignore the morning EMHs and concentrate on the evening ones, but your family might be the total opposite! Once I have all the EMH's mapped out for the days of our trip, I will start re-arranging the day blocks into place. Sometimes this works out well, other times a little reorganization is required at this stage to get it all to fit together like a happy jigsaw puzzle. That's what I love about planning Disney World trips, the puzzling. And this part of the process is a timed puzzle, because you only have 10 days to sort it out. What happens in 10 days? Well, around that time you will be hitting the 180 day mark. What happens at the 180 day mark? Advanced Dining Reservations, my friend!
The easiest thing would be to arrange your week such that your day itineraries match up to the EMH's, but per my note above and the recent advice about not being in the same park during the day as has EMH's at night, you might want to consider when you'll be hopping (specifically whether it will be before or after dinner, so you can figure out which park you'll be in for which meals).
Once you've got your itinerary to a place where it feels finished, you need to separate out everything that requires a reservation: that is, dining and event stuff, mostly. You'll want to segment the dining even further based on how hard it is to get. Basically, Cinderella's Castle, Belle's Castle, the Hoop De Doo, and California Grill are the most difficult reservations to get. If you want to eat at any of these restaurants, you'll want to make these first. DO NOT plan to schedule based on the chronology of your trip, in the 15 minutes it takes you to reserve your reservations those most popular ones will fill up, so you need to schedule them first and then work your way through the rest!
One last tip: because you are able to make your dining reservations at 180 days for your whole trip, it sometimes helps if you schedule the harder to get reservations at the end of the trip when you have the most advantage for booking them.
On our last trip we had reservations for nine at:
TRex || California Grill || Be Our Guest Restaurant (Belle's Castle) || Hoop De Doo Review || Ohana (dinner) || Ohana (breakfast) || Tony's Town Square || Tusker House || Rainforest Cafe, Boma || Coral Reef || Biergarten || Chef Mickey || Cinderella's Royal Table || 50's Prime Time Cafe, The Brown Derby Fantasmic Package || Liberty Tree Tavern || Cape May Cafe.... and events included the Bibbidy Bobbidy Boutique, My Disney Girls Perfectly Princess Tea Party, the Pirates League, and the Pirates & Pals Fireworks Cruise!
So, given that evidence, I like to think I know a thing or two about how to get ADRs!
STEP FOUR: ONE-HUNDRED-EIGHTY-DAYS (or, "TIME TO MAKE THE ADRs!")
When should you do this? 180 days!!! At 5:55 AM!!! (I'm not joking).
Did you notice how I mentioned up above that we are not morning people? But you better believe that at 5:55 180 days ahead of my trip I am awake(ish) and my laptop is logged in to the Disney site. You can make online reservations at 6 pm sharp, so the advice I received which worked for us was to load up your browser with your most sought-after reservation and start hitting refresh on the page until it goes through.
If you had a lot of reservations to make, hypothetically, and a lot of them were high-priority restaurants, you might have your partner log in on their laptop to their account and divvy up the wish list and both be making ADRs side-by-side... you know, if you were being really assertive about it. But I don't know anyone who's ever done that, of course... I mean, that's just silly, right?
Make sure you've registered for the site and played around with it previously so you are familiar with the interface prior to the 180 day mark. Trust me, at 5:55 in the morning, it helps if you know where the buttons are and what the process is! If you're comfortable you can save your profile and credit card information ahead and time and you'll need to link up your hotel reservations in order to take advantage of the full ADR window.
In the event that you have trouble with the website at 6am, the phone lines open at 7am. The same process applies, try for the hardest to get reservations first and work your way through the list. Be very nice to the cast member, they can help you! Oh, and start dialing in at 6:55 and keep hitting redial until it goes through.
The phone lines for events open at 8am (also 180 days out) so there's a bit of faith, trust, and pixie dust that has to happen in order for you to get your itinerary just the way you wanted it if you wait all the way until 8am! You might want to have a few contingency plans, places where you can swap meals around, etc. However, I'm happy to say that for our 2011 trip employing the strategy that I outlined above we were able to book all the meals that we wanted, including the California Grill which was reopening after a refurbishment and two dinner reservations for Be Our Guest Restaurant in Belle's Castle (still the hardest restaurant to book, I believe!), dress up at the Bibbidy Bobbidi Boutique timed to be immediately followed by dinner at Cinderella's Castle and the Brown Derby Fantasmic Package, and much more!
Note, we weren't being greedy with the two reservations for Belle's castle, we had to get two separate reservations for four to accommodate our group because they weren't making reservations for nine, but they were able to put us together at one large table after we checked in! Honest!
STEP FIVE: WHAT DINING PLAN DO YOU NEED?
When should you do this? After you know where you're eating, in my opinion...
Disregard if you booked a package that included dining. However, you should know that you don't have to book your dining plan at the same time as your hotel reservation, you can add it up to a few days before you check in. I usually wait until after I've made all my dining reservations and my itinerary and set, then I add up how many Table Services I will be using and make my decision about whether I want the Regular or Deluxe dining plan at that point.
STEP SIX: OH NO, YOUR WORKS NOT DONE! DISNEY HAS ADDED FASTPASS+!
When should you do this? 60 days out if you're on property, 30 days if off property.
Silly you, you thought you were done after getting all your dining reservations situated? Now it's time to start thinking about what rides you want to ride! (again, I'm not kidding!) The FP+ booking opens up 60 days prior to your trip (if you're staying on property) and 30 days prior if you're staying off. So, you have some time.
With your dining reservations set in stone (you can change them of course, but at this point I consider my itinerary pretty much fixed) start trying to identify what parks you'll be in on which days and what rides you'll want to get FP+ for and in what priority, then on the magic day you'll go onto the site and lock those in at midnight! Each guest gets 3 FP+ per day to advance schedule (though this has been changing as Disney reworks the FP+ system, so check to make sure that that's still the policy). I try to identify what rides/experiences the kids most want to do, and also if I think they'll want to do them more than once. You can actually change the FP+s from in the park using the mobile phone, so if when you arrive at a ride the line isn't that long you can save your FP+ and use it for something else (so long as you make the switch using the app). I also recently read that they've opened up a fourth FP+ per day that you can schedule using the in-park kiosks only after you've used up your first three....
When we used FP+ in 2013 it was brand new and we were beta testers. The system is still evolving, so be sure to do some online research when you get closer to your trip. So far as my 101 advice goes, though, keep in mind that it's to your advantage to take use this system. It seems weird to be thinking about what rides you want to do when so, so far in advance but it's actually pretty natural if (like me) you have a set itinerary for each day. Probably not so great for folks who just like to wing it, like my cousins who travelled with us in 2013, who really chaffed over the FP+ system. If you're staying on property you'll receive your magic bands in the mail ahead of time, so that's a date to keep track of, too...
STEP SEVEN: SORT OF THE LAST ONE, I PROMISE
When should you do this? Give yourself plenty of time before your departure date...
So, what now? Well, because my trips have been so complex with so many people and moving parts, I make little booklets for each family member with their itinerary on it, and a big wall sticker chart / schedule for keeping track of our meal plan usage. Trust me, when you have 9 people going in separate and converging directions over 9 days and only 1 trip planner (me!) that extra step really helps to keep everyone organized.
I made itinerary booklets for the first time for my coworker who's "Family Moon" I mentioned I planned. Because she hadn't planned the trip herself (and was rightfully distracted by wedding planning!) I was worried that she'd miss steps. I added little notes on things to remember to pack on each day (like rain ponchos for Seaworld so you don't have to buy them, and autograph books for Magic Kingdom!) You can make these simple or elaborate. When my coworker returned she said that the itinerary booklet had been their lifeline and by the end of the trip was all dog-earred and stained and worn out, but that they'd included it in their scrapbook because it had been like a member of their trip.
According to Etsy and a google image search, it looks like I'm not the only one who does this, either! Ha! I love being validated by the internet! Take that, doubters! And some of the posters are even more elaborate than the ones I made were!
I think I'll probably do a separate post about packing, but in general terms you want to think ahead about what will help each day go smoothly (for instance, planning to see fireworks? Maybe pack your own light up toys so you can appease the kids and save $$!) A little trick we learned on our last trip: you can ship a box to your hotel room which might cost less than an extra checked bag on the plane!
I also pre-load our itinerary into any of the mobile apps we're using (there are some we use in addition to the official Disney mobile app.... again, a post for another day).
STEP EIGHT: ENJOY!
When should you do this? The whole time! :-)
This post is about trip planning, but I thought it might be worth ending on the trip itself: remember to be flexible and have fun! A trip to Disney World isn't so much about what you do, so much as what you end up doing together. That is, even the best plans will have their hiccups. Weather and tantrums and all. Roll with it. In the long run you won't remember the ADR you missed because it was raining and you didn't make it across the park in time, you'll remember the kids stomping in the puddles and having a blast!
So, for those of you who've asked and been asking, there you have it. That's pretty much, more or less, my approach. Like I said, it's definitely not for everyone! I'll try to dig into some of the topics more deeply at a later date (I have some thoughts on trip cadences that worked better than others for us (i.e., we don't do a theme park the day of arrival, things to pack, autograph books, fireworks, and other special topics). Oh, and as I work through my 2015 plans I'll post about how it's coming along, of course!
Speaking of, just in case you thought I was crazy about planning so far in advance: I received a package in the mail over the weekend that had this awesome, helpful refrigerator magnet in it to help remind me of the upcoming important planning dates for my 2015 trip! It's like Disney can read my mind or something... :-)