No doubt about it – there are a lot of t’s to cross and i’s to dot when planning a Disney World vacation with kids. But, the process doesn’t have to leave you feeling a bit overwhelmed at times. Here’s a plan that takes you through the process from start to finish.
Up to a Year in Advance
Disney Travel Guide. Consider purchasing a Disney travel guide. The Unofficial Guide Walt Disney World is my favorite.
Pick your Travel Dates. Seems simple but deciding when to visit Walt Disney World will influence almost every aspect of your vacation from crowd levels to onsite lodging costs to availability of Advance Dining Reservations (ADRs) and even the cost of food.
If you’re staying onsite, resort rates are based on one of five vacation “seasons”. Also, rates are higher on most weekend nights. Absent promotions, the single most important thing you can do to save money on Walt Disney World Resort lodging is to visit in the off season. Visit Mousesavers for a list of the Walt Disney World resort seasons and rates.
On the other hand, there might be a special event that influences your travel dates such as Holidays Around the World, the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, or Disney Hollywood Studio’s Star Wars Weekends.
Travel Agent or Go It Alone. It can be nice to get a helping hand in making your Walt Disney World travel arrangements and using an experienced Walt Disney World travel agent is worth considering. Reputable agents have access to the latest discounts and will not charge you for making Walt Disney World arrangements; they receive their commission from Disney. If you decide to make the arrangements yourself, not to worry. Disney World reservations agents are among the most helpful, friendly, and professional that I’ve encountered.
On-Site or Off-Site Lodging. With Value, Moderate, and Deluxe accommodations plus a Campground and Villa Resorts, Walt Disney World has lodging at every price point and with a theme to suit everyone. Besides the perks of staying on-site, one of the reasons I like to stay at a Walt Disney World owned and operated hotel is the theming and overall experience. As soon as I set foot inside the hotel, I feel as if I’m immersed in the Disney magic, complete with a superior level of service. If you need more space, think about renting a vacation home in the area or staying in one of Walt Disney World’s family suites or one, two, and three bedroom villas.
Package versus Room-Only. Magic Your Way packages bundle lodging, tickets, and an optional Disney World dining plan. Often, other perks are included. Room-only reservations are just that – a guaranteed reservation for your Walt Disney World Resort lodging. You’ll have to purchase tickets separately. As with anything, crunch the numbers and cancellation policies carefully before making a decision. Will you be purchasing your own tickets? Is a Disney Dining Plan a good match for your family and will you be using the extra perks included in a package?
- If you purchase a package, you’ll need to decide the type of tickets to purchase. The base ticket allows you to visit a single park each day. If you think you’ll want to visit more than one theme park in a single day, consider purchasing the Park Hopper option. The Water Parks Fun and More option adds admission to water parks, golf, and more.
Planes, Trains, Automobiles. Decide on the best way to travel to the Walt Disney World Resort and be on the lookout for deals.
Six Months Out
Plan Your Days. Review the Disney Parks website which lists park hours, parade and firework times, and Extra Magic Hours. If you’re planning on eating at table-service restaurants or character dining inside the theme parks, deciding which days you’ll be visiting each park will be especially helpful if you do not have a Park Hopper ticket. Admission is required to eat at theme park restaurants Make Advance Dining Reservations (ADRs).
- First-time guests may be surprised and frustrated to find they may not be able to walk up to a Walt Disney World resort restaurant and be seated, especially during the busier times of the year. Even during the off-season, some reservations are notoriously hard to secure, such as Epcot’s Le Cellier and Fairytale Dining at Cinderella’s Royal Table. Although I recommend making ADRs well in advance for all guests, it’s very important for families with small children.
- Character dining is popular and with good reason, it’s an excellent chance for your little ones to meet their favorite characters. If there’s a character dining meal that will be the highlight of your child’s trip, book early. Also, by making your ADRs far in advance, you will have a greater the chance of getting a reservation at your preferred dining time. A hungry three-year old may not be exactly open to the idea of waiting until 8:30 to eat dinner.
Three Months Out
Pirate Cruise or Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique? Disney World has a wonderful assortment of recreation options available for adults and children alike. A campfire sing-a-long and movie may be the perfect end to a day at Disney World or maybe some catch and release fishing at Port Orleans Riverside is just the thing for your family. Look into any Disney recreation that fits your family’s budget and interests and make your reservation if necessary.
Magical Express. If you’re flying into the Orlando International Airport on a participating airline and staying at a Walt Disney World Resort owned and operated hotel, make a reservation for Disney’s Magical Express. You’ll have free transportation from the airport to your lodging and the best part is your luggage will be delivered directly to your room. No more waiting at baggage claim!
Two Months Out
Tickets. If you won’t be buying your theme park tickets directly from Walt Disney World, purchase your tickets from a reputable source, such as Undercover Tourist. Military and Department of Defense civilians can purchase discounted tickets from their base MWR office.
Rental Car Reservations. If you’re renting a car, keep your eyes open for a deal and make your reservation.
Stroller and Baby Gear Rentals. Don’t be surprised if smaller children who do not normally use a stroller at home need one during a long day touring. Each Walt Disney World theme park offers stroller rentals but they must be returned when you leave the park; I like to have a stroller to use throughout the entire resort. Local Orlando companies, such as Orlando Stroller Rentals, will deliver rented strollers to your hotel room. Baby’s Away and A Baby’s Best Friend offer rentals of other baby gear.
Magical Gifts. If Mickey or one of his helpers will be leaving a small gift for your children every day, start shopping for discounted or low-cost items.
Start Training. You’ll be surprised at how many miles you’ll cover during a typical day at the Walt Disney World Resort. Start getting in shape and spend some time together with daily walks. Your feet will thank you.
One Month Out
Attraction Planning. Plan a couple of Disney family nights and have everyone pick their top must-do attractions in each park. Visit the Walt Disney World website and download customizable maps or download the maps here. If you have young children and you’re not sure how they will react to certain attractions, visit You Tube and watch a video of the attraction. Gauge your child’s reaction update your itinerary. Touring plans, such as those at Touring Plans.com and Tour Guide Mike, can help maximize the number of attractions you experience each day. If you decide to use a touring plan, print them now.
Closet Check. Check your kids’ closets. Purchase necessary clothes and shoes.
Order child identification products.
Get your child proofing supplies together.
Arrange transportation from your house to the airport, if necessary.
Hang up your Disney count-down calendar.
Disney Rewards Card. If you have a Disney Rewards Visa, order your rewards card.
Three Weeks Out
Watch the mail for your Magical Express tags
Two Weeks Out
Packing List. Make a detailed packing list and purchase what’s missing.
- Confirm all reservations
Grocery Delivery. Services such as Garden Grocer and WeGoShop will delivery groceries to your Orlando hotel room. Consider ordering water and snacks.
Autograph Book. Buy or make an autograph book for the Disney characters to sign.
1 Week Out
Prepare all documents (medical information, copies of reservations including ADRs, travel itinerary, plane reservations, etc.)
Ship supplies to lodging. If you have bulky baby items such as diapers and sippy cups, consider shipping them to your Walt Disney World resort. The bell stand will hold properly addressed items until you arrive. If you use a company such as, JetSetBabies or Babies Travel Lite, place your order a few weeks earlier.
Online Check-in. Use Disney’s online check-in service for your onsite hotel.
iPhone Apps. Download your favorite Walt Disney World wait time application.
Disney PhotoCD. Consider preordering your Disney PhotoPass CD.
Charge camera and portable DVD batteries
Refill and pickup prescription medications
Enjoy your magical vacation!!!!!
Lisa M. Battista is the author of Beyond the Attractions: A Guide to Walt Disney World with Preschoolers When she’s not chasing after her little ones, you can most likely find her at the beach or in the kitchen trying her hand at a new recipe.
*Disclosure: If you purchase products via the Amazon links above, the author will benefit from a small referral fee.
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