Planning a Disney Vacation

There’s a lot that goes into planning a Walt Disney World vacation: park tickets, hotels, dining reservations, crowds, park hopping, airfare, packing, transportation, MagicBands, FastPasses… the list goes on! Yet many people neglect to put the proper time and effort into planning their vacation, and as a result the quality of their vacation suffers. After all, you’re going to be spending a lot of money, you want the best deal you can get, right?

Don’t worry! I’m here to walk you through the process and make it as painless as possible. Planning a Walt Disney World vacation can be tremendously rewarding, and almost as fun as the vacation itself (I said almost, okay?) Whether it’s your first visit or you’re considering trying again with the next generation, assuring that you spend enough time on the details can make the difference between another average vacation and the most exciting adventure of your life.

For starters, be sure to know the answers to the following questions to make your planning most rewarding.

What is a Disney vacation?

What is there to do?

How long should I stay?

Where should I stay?

What should I pack?

NOTE: This article specializes in information about Walt Disney World. Stay tuned for more info about other vacation destinations!


What is a Disney Vacation?

Before diving into anything else, you should probably have an understanding for what a Disney vacation actually is, right? Below I break down Disney into the most major chunks: the parks, shopping, and other activities. If you’ve been before or you feel you have a strong understanding of what WDW has to offer, feel free to skip this section. But understand this: a Disney vacation is an exceptionally unique vacation. No, I’m not just preaching my love for Disney. What do you think of when I say “vacation?” I imagine spending long days on a Caribbean beach and watching the sunset while lying in a hammock with a margarita in hand. Most people look forward to their vacation as an opportunity to get away from their daily troubles and obligations to indulge in some peaceful relaxation with their family.

That could not be any farther from the truth.

For starters, you will be doing walking. A lot of walking. WDW is twice the size of Manhattan, so you should expect to spend a decent amount of time walking and traveling from Point A to Point B.

You should also expect to have an agenda. FastPasses, dining reservations, shows, character meet and greets, etc. On a Disney trip, you will be doing things, not just laying around and going with the flow.

Yes, of course there will be plenty of opportunities to relax and enjoy moments similar to the “ideal” vacation. But if you’re looking for a vacation where you can spend a day at the hot tub, you’re going to the wrong place. There’s nothing wrong with doing those activities at WDW, in fact Disney does them very well. But there are plenty of other vacation destinations in the world that specialize in that type of experience for much cheaper. And with far less screaming kids.

Still with me?

I was raised in a family of Disney loyalists. We have all our fastpasses and dining planned out at least 6 months in advance. We wake up early to go to the parks and have had our fair share of meltdowns from spending all our energy running around the World. You do not have to be as extreme as us to have an amazing time at WDW. But knowing what you’re getting into is essential. If you don’t want obligation and hate the idea of having to walk through a crowded park to fulfill what the vacation has to offer, I’d advise you to reconsider. But if you like the idea of an activity-based vacation, you’re going to have a great time.

Let’s get into what there actually is to do.

What to do at Walt Disney World

Park Overview

The four Disney park icons: Cinderella Castle, Spaceship Earth, the Tree of Life, and the Tower of Terror.
Walt Disney World has four main theme parks and two water parks.

Magic Kingdom Park– Magic Kingdom is the original park that opened in 1971. The park is divided into six main lands: Main Street USA, Adventureland, Frontierland, Liberty Square, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland. In the center is Cinderella Castle, which is also the gateway to Fantasyland. Magic Kingdom is home to famous attractions such as Splash Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, and Peter Pan’s Flight. It’s also the home of the main events and festivities during the holiday seasons.

Epcot – Walt Disney World’s second park opened in 1982. It’s divided into two sections: Futureworld and the World Showcase. Futureworld is home to coveted Disney attractions like Mission: Space, Test Track, and Soarin’ around the World. The World Showcase is a collection of pavilions themed to various countries around the world, each complete with shops, food, and a few cultural exhibits or vendors. Epcot is also known for its special events including The Flower and Garden Festival, The Food and Wine Festival, the Festival of the Holidays, and the Festival of the Arts.

Disney Hollywood Studios – Hollywood Studios is the third park to be built, opening in 1989 (you may remember this as “MGM Studios” back in the day). You’ll often hear people call it a half-day park, and I agree with them, especially now. Hollywood studios is undergoing a major overhaul in an attempt to change the identity and slant of the park from a real behind-the-scenes look at sound stages, stunts, and special effects to a park that houses famous movie environments.

As of right now, you can experience rides like the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Rock’n’Rollercoaster Starring Aerosmith, Toy Story Mania, and Star Tours: The Adventure Continues.

The opening of Toy Story Land in 2018 has helped, but you won’t see significant improvements to the park’s attraction offerings until the opening of Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge in late 2019.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom – This Disney’s most recent park, which opened in 1998. It’s very big, very dense on theming, and there are lots of animals. I used to hate this park, but some changes in entertainment, increased hours, and the addition of Pandora: The World of Avatar have really gone a long way in improving my opinion.

Attractions at the park include Flight of Passage, Expedition Everest, Dinosaur, and Kilimanjaro Safaris – all fantastic attractions.

Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon is the older of the two water parks. It is themed as a tropical surfing cove.

Disney’s Blizzard Beach has an interesting and humorous theme as a Florida resort that froze over, was converted to a ski resort, and then melted again. This park is home to the famous Summit Plummet slide.

I was never a huge advocate for water parks, and I think there are better ways to spend your time when on a Disney vacation. However for water parks, they are both well-themed and well-maintained.

It’s worth mentioning that if you’re not visiting during the peak season, one of the water parks will most likely be closed for refurbishments due to less of a need for capacity, however both will never be closed simultaneously.

Other Destinations

Disney’s Boardwalk – A smaller shopping/recreational area that’s formed by the resort extensions behind Epcot. Another great way to spend time away from the parks.

Disney Springs – A lakeside shopping area with tons of dining options and other entertainment offerings such as an AMC complex, live music, and bowling. 2019 will see the opening of the NBA Experience and a new show at the Cirque Du Soleil theater.

The hot air balloon, located at Disney Springs, flies above Planet Hollywood and the rest of the construction.

And more!

There’s so much more to do, all of this is just the tip of the iceberg. Here are just a few popular options:

Dining – One of my favorite aspects of WDW is the dining. And not just in the parks, there’s some great dining at each of the resorts too.

Hoop-Dee-Doo Revue check in sign
The Hoop-Dee-Doo Revue is one of the best ways to spend an evening at Walt Disney World.

Golfing – There are four main courses on property, as well as two mini-golf courses for the whole family.

Boating/fishing – A few of the deluxe resorts offer boat rentals, a great way to explore the property and get away from all the hustle.

Spas – Not my area of expertise, but there’s many options across many of the resorts.

Tours – If you have the time (and the money), there are some great behind-the-scenes tour that provide some deep insight about the parks’ history and creation. For more activities, it’s worth checking out the official Walt Disney World website.

Resort-hopping – An inexpensive way to pass the time is simply by exploring the resorts and checking out their shops and dining.

Monorail Blue, as it travels throughout Disney.

A great way to start is to “monorail hop” around the Magic Kingdom resorts. Or just explore your own resort.

How long should I stay?

The length of your vacation is going to depend entirely on not only what but how much you intend to accomplish. Good thing we already talked about what there is to do, right? In all seriousness, you’ll have to spend some time doing research.

Maybe you want to see everything. I’ll be honest: If this is your first time, and you want to see everything

 one day per park is not enough.

Considering the vast size of the parks, and the million other things to do, it just isn’t realistic. And now I have to be honest about something else: You won’t see everything. It would take weeks of non-stop vacationing to actually see everything there is to. But with the proper planning, you can still see a lot. 

For newcomers, I often hear people settle on the “one-day-per-par” rule, thus a total of four full days to get a taste of everything in WDW. I wouldn’t do it, that’s still a little short. If you’re just looking for a taste, six days is a good starting point. There’s a method to my madness: To see the entirety of the four main parks, that will probably take about 5 days. That is – five full days of diligence and effort to try and see everything you can. Now add another half-day if you want to see one of the water parks, and then add another half-day for other activities, relaxation, or Disney Springs. That’s six days right there.

Now I say this if you’re the type of person, such as myself, who wants to move around and get things done on their vacation. Not that type of person? I really don’t blame you, not many are. Many people recommend adding a relaxation day for buffer – a day where you can spend time outside of the parks doing any of the other activities I’d mentioned above. It’s a great way to save money too.

Are you looking to travel off property to see other attractions? Universal Studios perhaps? How much of that do you want to see? To see “everything” at both Universal parks would take another 2, 3… maybe 4 days. You’ll have to figure out where your priorities lie.

Wizarding World of Harry Potter Hogwarts Castle
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter located at Universal’s Islands of Adventure is worth the visit.

There’s no way I can make up one cookie-cutter formula and claim that it applies to everyone in practice. People are different, and they travel to Disney World for different reasons.

For example, maybe you have absolutely no interest in seeing a water park: knock off half a day. Or maybe you’re not interested in seeing every last thing if you can save some money. My mother has vacationed to Walt Disney World an innumerable amount of times. She has a familiarity with what she wants and doesn’t want to do. A vacation for her is typically just two days at the park and some hot-tub time. That’s perfectly fine, but I put it to you this way so you have a starting point. A driving instructor tells you to go exactly 65 miles on the highway. They leave it up to you to figure out that you don’t always have to do that.

Let’s jump ahead now. You’ve done your research, you know what you want to see and based off of my little formula, you’ve figured out how long you would like this adventure to be. When I advise to include “six days for the parks,” don’t feel like you’re restrained to visiting only one park per day. You can choose to purchase park hoppers which give you the freedom to visit multiple parks per day (i.e. a morning at Magic Kingdom – back to the hotel for a break – spend the night at Epcot). You can also save some money by just buying regular tickets and you’ll still have some freedom and flexibility in your schedule (i.e. a morning at Hollywood Studios – back to the hotel for a break – over to the Wilderness Lodge for boating – evening dinner at O’hana).  

Knowing how much time to spend at Walt Disney World is the crucial step in the planning process. From here, everything starts to take shape. Giving yourself plenty of leeway and dividing your days into multiple activities will assure the well-paced and dynamic experience you are looking for.

Where should I stay?

On-site vs. off-site?

Up until very recently, I would stress that staying on-property was absolutely essential to satisfaction for a WDW vacation. Those days seem to have passed. Don’t be misled, I still greatly prefer staying on Disney property. If you don’t care to read anything else, understand that I recommend staying on-property in most circumstances. However, there are a few factors to consider that could sway you in the other direction. We’ll return to that in a moment.

Reasons to stay on-site

Most importantly, guests staying at any Disney-owned property are given some perks:

  1. Free transportation to and from the parks. Each resort includes buses that provide access to and from every point of interest in WDW. The more expensive Moderate and Deluxe resorts offer direct monorail and/or boat access, depending on the resort. Some resorts are even within walking distance. Of course there are certain quirks to the bus system; I’d recommend checking out my video on it below.
  2. Access to FastPass+ reservations 60 days in advance. If you’re not familiar, this is a digital ride reservation that allows guests to “skip the line” and walk right on during a reserved period for select attractions. In recent years, FastPasses have changed from a convenience to an absolute necessity. The reason being: anyone with a park ticket can reserve their FastPasses 30 days in advance. But guests staying at a WDW resort can make theirs 60 days in advance. Typically, that means all of the “best” rides have already been reserved.
  3. Disney resort guests get extra time in the parks through Extra Magic Hours. Each day one of the four WDW parks is opened exclusively to resort guests, either an hour earlier or a few hours after. Taking advantage of Extra Magic Hours can save eons of time.
  4. Free transportation to and from Orlando International Airport through Disney’s Magical Express. This one’s a good one. No car rentals. No Uber. It’s 100% included with your stay, and it’s a good service.
  5. Other benefits, such as direct-to-room deliveries of theme park souvenirs, charging your purchases directly to your room with your Magic Band, the opportunity to purchase the Disney Dining Plan, and so much more.
Luggage sits ready to be packed on the Magical Express bus.

If you haven’t already figured it out, Disney does their best to incentivize guests to stay on property. The Magical Express makes traveling to non-Disney attractions off-property much more difficult. That’s more money for them, and less for the competitors. Still, it is a good perk.

Some other factors to consider:

Quality and consistency of service. There are some wonderful resorts that have nothing to do with Disney. But if you plan to book your stay with Disney, there’s a certain standard that you can come to expect without too much variation.

You can book at 18. This one’s not mentioned too frequently, but many other hotels age restrictions of 21-25 and up! Disney makes for a great first vacation.

Immersion and Theming. It does not matter how much money you’re spending, Disney will engulf you with immersive theming that you can’t find at too many other destinations. Some hotels will be packed with various Disney characters and icons for the kids. Others offer layers of theming that create a genuinely convincing illusion that you’re at some other destination, such as Hawaii or the bayous of the Deep South.

The Disney Experience. There’s just something to be said about staying at a Disney resort. You don’t have to deal with Orlando traffic or listen to police sirens at night. You don’t even have to drive, if you don’t want to. Instead you’re surrounded by Disney in all directions, away from the real world and immersed in the “Disney bubble.” In my opinion, this is the ideal way to experience a Disney vacation.

Disney parks are closer to Disney resorts. If you’re visiting Walt Disney World exclusively, staying on property is inherently more convenient.

Contemporary sits in the background across the road from Disney's Magic Kingdom.
This image of the Contemporary was taken from the entrance of Magic Kingdom. Many Deluxe resorts are in walking distance to the parks!

Reasons to stay off-site

Still, there are a few key factors that could sway my suggestion:

  1. As of 2018, Disney now charges for parking at their resorts. This totally sucks. Prices range from $13-$24, depending on the resort. The consensus is that this is to incentivize people to rely on their free transportation options instead, and thus forcing people to stay on-property. If you’re renting a car, that’s going to make the final cost much pricier than if you were to stay elsewhere. Which leads me to my next point…
  2. Visiting other attractions in the area? Maybe stay off-property. While visiting other destinations in the area isn’t a pure Disney vacation (I’m biased, I know), other attractions are starting to offer more and more as time goes on. It’s worth visiting Universal Studios just for the Wizarding World alone. Depending on how many days you’re spending outside of Disney, renting a car may be necessary for the cost, convenience, etc. And many resorts outside of WDW may offer parking for cheaper, or possibly free.
  3. Large groups. If you require a room with accommodations for a larger group (i.e. multiple bedrooms, multiple bathrooms, kitchen) you’ll find them to be cheaper off-property, although Disney certainly does have them.
  4. Money, money, money. Staying off-site is often cheaper. Sometimes it’s a lot cheaper. Given the amount of perks included with a stay at a WDW resort, I consider it to be well worth the extra money. Still, if you absolutely need to cut every cost possible to make your vacation possible, this is a way to do it. But I’d highly recommend to do thorough research on all of the resort’s amenities and offerings so you’re informed on exactly what you’ll be paying for. Unlike Disney resorts, there’s no cut-and-dried method of determining the value and quality of so many non-Disney resorts.
  5. Maybe Disney theming isn’t for you. If Disney isn’t your thing, then being in the Disney probably sounds like an unattractive aspect of your vacation. Let’s agree to disagree. We can still be friends. I guess.
Wooden tiki located in the foliage at Disney's Polynesian Village Resort.
But seriously, how could you resist this adorable tiki?

Some final thoughts:

Many non-Disney resorts may offer transportation as well, but proceed with caution: Whereas Disney transportation is free and essentially nonstop (a new bus comes every 10-20 minutes), non-Disney shuttles may only depart once or twice a day, leaving you with much less flexibility. If you miss it, you’re out of luck. Furthermore, their drop-off points will be less convenient than Disney’s.

Keep in mind there are some non-Disney owned resorts located within Walt Disney World, most notably The Swan & Dolphin and many resorts in the Disney Springs Area. Often these resorts will have a few of the perks, but not the majority. Consider them a middle ground.

To make the best decision, you’ll have to take your families objectives into consideration and do your research. When comparing prices, make sure you’re considering any discounts and watch out for those hidden resort fees.

Resort Overview

WDW resorts are divided into three man categories: Value, Moderate, and Deluxe. I’m going to give a brief rundown of each of the categories, and feel free to click on one of the links for a more in-depth review of the resorts. For each of the given price ranges, keep in mind that they exclude discounts or prices from third-party sellers, which can be much cheaper.

Value Resorts are the cheapest, ranging from $110 – $270, depending on the resort, time of year, and the current discounts/promotions. Value resorts are very large (that is, regarding the walk to the nearest pool or lobby); a standard room will typically have two double beds, there is one central food court, and a large family pool. These resorts are also farther away from most of the theme parks, requiring travel by car or bus. Value Resorts include:

All-Star Music Value Resort building exterior with guitar decorations.

Art of Animation is a bit of an outlier in that it is category as a Value Resort, yet the family suite offerings really put its price range more in line with the Deluxe Resorts.

Moderate Resorts are a slightly more expensive. A standard room can range from $195 to $350, depending on the resort, time of year, and the current discounts/promotions. These resorts are also very large, and standard room features and sizes vary depending on the resort. In addition to a food court, the resorts also feature more elaborate swimming facilities including a hot tub, a small restaurant, and other recreational activities like bike rentals. These resorts are closer to the main theme parks and Disney Springs. This category includes:

Remote path in the bayou of Disney's Port Orleans Resort - Riverside.

Just like Art of Animation, The Cabins are also priced similar to Deluxe rates.

Deluxe Resort prices vary heavily, but they typically start in the $380 range and can be as expensive as $960 per night, just for a standard room. In addition to all the features of the previous resorts, they are a lot less spread out – mostly within one main building as opposed to several. Deluxe Resorts have the most elaborate theming, include access to at least two table service locations as well as one quick service, and have many more accommodations to offer. They also have convenient access to the parks, many of them within walking distance. The Deluxe Resorts are:

Lanterns on the ceiling of the lobby at Disney's Polynesian Village, a Deluxe Resort.
  • Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge
  • Disney’s Yacht Club
  • Disney’s Beach Club
  • Disney’s Boardwalk Inn
  • Disney’s Contemporary
  • Disney’s Grand Floridian
  • Disney’s Polynesian Village
  • Disney’s Wilderness Lodge

Other Resorts

There are several other resorts that don’t categorize as any of these, including many non-Disney hotels in the Disney Springs area.

The Shades of Green is owned by the Department of Defense with certain eligibility criteria.

The Swan & Dolphin resorts are an unusual hybrid of Disney and on-Disney elements. Located in the Epcot resort area, it is operated by Starwood Hotels yet offers some of the on-site perks such as FastPass+ reservations 60 days in advance as well as free Disney transportation (but not the Magical Express).

Fountain in front of the Walt Disney World Swan resort, located in-between Epcot and Hollywood Studios.
The Swan and Dolphin are priced more like a Disney Moderate Resort, although they don’t offer all the perks of staying at an actual WDW resort property. Also, beware of resort fees.

In addition to the cabins, The Fort Wilderness Campgrounds offer camping space as well. Go figure. This can be one of the most inexpensive options.

All of the Deluxe Resorts offer “Deluxe Villas,” which are the timeshare rooms as part of the Disney Vacation Club. When they’re not occupied, these rooms are open to the general public for reasonable prices, relatively speaking.

What to Pack

I’ll leave it up to you to know your party’s specific needs for what to pack. There’s tons of info out there already that details every last item that one person could potentially pack or need for a WDW vacation. I find those lists to be redundant, excessive, and exhausting. This list assumes you know the basics. Here’s just a few items that I wish someone had told me about:

A Water Bottle – Do not waste money buying one at the park. Regardless of the time of year, you will need to stay hydrated. To save money I recommend packing an empty bottle and refilling it at the various water fountains throughout the parks. For longer vacations, you can get groceries delivered to your room. A case of 12 waters can still be cheaper than just buying one at the park!

Ponchos and Spare Flip-flops – Every day there’s usually some percentage of rain on the forecast. Bring them.  I recommend keeping them in your bag until the time is right to switch them. You may get tired of packing them and decide you don’t need them, and then that’ll be the day it pores. Walking around all day in soggy sneakers and clothes is a great way to ruin your day. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Phone Card Holder – I find this one to be handy because I don’t like having to dig around for things. If you’re utilizing the Magic Band system and you’re staying on property, you can charge purchases right to your room. This generally eliminates the need for a wallet, although it may not hurt to carry around a few extra bucks in your bag. I typically keep an ID and a credit card or gift card, but that’s about it.

Phone Card Holder.

Sunscreen – Bring it to the parks too. If you’re like me, you’ll be reapplying every five minutes.

Expandable Running Waist Pack – These things are designed for runners but they are perfect for theme park use. If you don’t know what they are, it’s essentially a slim fanny pack that buckles around your waste that can expand a little. If you’re carrying around a bag, it may not be necessary. But let’s say you just finished an evening swim and you’re about to go to Epcot for the night. The sun’s going down and it’s not going to rain so there might not be a reason to lug around the backpack for just a few hours. That’s where this thing comes in. I personally love it because unlike a fanny pack, it’s small and can be worn discreetly tucked under your shirt.

Expandable Waist Pack
Here’s one from Nike, however there’s plenty of other good ones out there for far less.

Mini Tripods – A great way to improve your photos. I personally recommend the gorillapod because it can adapt to any different terrain. But anything similar works well too. But not selfie sticks – they’re banned and security will find it during bag check.

Joby Gorillapod

Portable Phone Charger – For that one guy that starts his day at 23%. This way there’s no hunt for outlets.

Disney Resort Mugs – If you’ve been before, Disney has their own special mugs that you can use to get refills on drinks at the resorts (they even have chips in them now to limit the frequency of refills). I recommend holding onto these. Even though you won’t be able to use them again for free refills, you can fill them with your drink of choice and inconspicuously bring them to the pool/hot-tub.

Foot Powder – To combat the blisters.

Cooling Towels – If you’re going during the summer, consider buying athletic cooling towels. They can be small and lightweight. Just run them under some cold water, drain out the excess water and they’ll retain the cool temperature. Generally, the more expensive towels are higher in quality.

Spare clothes – For rain in the summer I would only recommend ponchos. During the off season it may be necessary to bring a rain jacket. If you’re going in the January-early March range, I would recommend bringing layers because the weather can be inconsistent.

And this brings me to my final point, worthy of its own subheading…

What to Wear

Dress comfortably. Disney consists of theme parks first and foremost. You’ll be doing a huge amount of walking. What does this mean?

Sneakers!

Don’t wear heals. Don’t wear sandals (unless it’s down pouring). You will get blisters and you will regret it. You may also want to pack several types of footwear depending on how long and what you will be doing. Sneakers for the parks, flip flops for the pool, and maybe some nicer footwear for a dinner. Fancy.

Dress for the weather. It’s Florida. In the summer, it rains almost every day. It’s often very hot. But don’t be fooled, in January it can be unpleasantly cold in the evening. Check the weather before you pack for the vacation and be prepared to have various clothing ready with you in the parks.


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