The Ultimate Checklist for Walt Disney World Vacation Planning Success

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You’ve finally decided to take the most magical of family vacations and have started your Walt Disney World vacation planning. Suddenly, the enormity of the task becomes real as you begin encountering tips for everything from finding the best airfare, to purchasing park tickets and making dining reservations. There is even a new language to master, spouting terms such as Genie+ or abbreviations like ADRs.

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be that complicated. You can plan your Disney vacation in eleven easy steps.

So, sit back, relax, and follow along. We’re about to simplify the world of Walt Disney World vacation planning and bring the magic back to your Disney World trip.

Step 1: Walt Disney World Vacation Planning: Finding the Best Time to Visit Disney World for You

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If you mention that you’re planning a trip to Disney World, odds are, you’ve received an earful about the best times to go.  Advice is abundant, but what really matters is that you select the best time for you. Here are some factors to help you decide.

First, the most popular times to visit are also the most expensive. You’ll see the cost increase reflected in everything from the price of your park tickets, to resort hotel rooms and even the cost of dining.

Second, higher crowds mean higher wait times for rides and attractions. This is usually offset by longer park hours, so you’ll experience everything you would while visiting at a less popular time, it just might take you longer to do it.

While some guests have turned the art of crowd avoidance into a science, we’re here to say that beating the crowds isn’t all there is to enjoying your Disney World vacation. We visited Disney World in December 2020, expecting low crowds and short waits thanks to capacity restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead, we encountered rides with waits in excess of two hours. We learned a few things from this experience.

First, a well-planned Disney World itinerary can help you beat a lot of the long wait times, but more importantly, waiting in line wasn’t all that bad. Lines move quickly and when you’re accompanied by people you love, you’re having fun even when standing still.

Beyond crowds and cost, the other consideration is weather. Summers are very hot and humid, with almost daily afternoon showers. However, winter isn’t always delightfully pleasant as many people expect. It can get cold, with highs in the thirties or forties. At night, you’ll need a coat or jacket.

Selecting the best time to go to Disney World then becomes an exercise in deciding what is most important to you. You’ll want to weigh factors such as your budget, weather preferences and crowd tolerance to determine the best time to visit.

In general, these are the most crowded times to plan a trip to Disney World, with the most popular times listed first. Keep in mind, more crowded can also means more expensive.

Most Crowded Times to Visit Disney World

  • Week before Christmas through the first week of January
  • The first two weeks of December
  • The month of October
  • The month of November
  • The month of March
  • Easter week
  • Week of July 4th

The least crowded times to plan a trip to Disney World are:

  • Mid-June through early July
  • Mid- to late August
  • The month of September
  • Last two weeks of January up to President’s Day weekend

Step 2: Decide on Your Budget: How Much Does a Trip to Disney World Really Cost?

Tackling the budgetary issues of your Walt Disney World vacation planning may be one of the most difficult aspects of the process. For one thing, determining how much a Disney World vacation really costs depends on a number of factors, such as where you stay, where you eat, when you go, and how long you stay.

As mentioned above in step one, costs are higher if you plan to visit during a more popular time of year. The simplest way to shave some dollars off your trip budget is to visit the Disney World ticket calendar, plug in your anticipated length of stay and see when the tickets are cheapest.

The next way to save money at Disney World is to be savvy about where you’ll stay. While booking an offsite resort looks cheaper up front, you’ll also be required to pay to for parking at each of the parks. Unless your hotel offers a shuttle, those parking fees can add up fast. Some resorts tack on a resort fee as well, which can add up to $30 a night or more.

Another factor to consider when you are planning a trip to Disney World on a budget is where you will dine. Disney World offers many top-tier dining experiences, but they do come at a cost. If you child is set on dining with the beast, for example, you could easily spend several hundred dollars.

Keeping your expectations real during this phase of your Walt Disney World vacation planning is important. It’s best to determine what you can afford to spend up front and then make reservations accordingly. Maybe you splurge on that one big meal and eat at lower cost counter-service restaurants the remainder of your stay. Of maybe you splurge for a bigger hotel room and make adjustments somewhere else.

So how much does a trip to Disney World cost? A 4-day weekday trip to Disney World for a family of four with 2 children under 10 may run you over $2400 for hotel and tickets at a value resort (see below for full explanation), and that’s in August when rates are cheapest.

When deciding on the best Disney trip for your budget, a travel agent experienced in Disney World can help you find the most magical combinations to fit your wallet, so don’t be afraid to ask for help. You should never have to pay more to use a travel agent, but what you’ll gain from their experience can be priceless.

Step 3: Set up Your My Disney Experience Account, the Key to Walt Disney World Vacation Planning

My Disney Experience is your key to the world, opening doors to all of the exciting and magical adventures that await. It is also one of the biggest tools in your Walt Disney World vacation planning arsenal, so it’s a good idea to set it up before you make any definite plans.

You can access My Disney Experience in one of two ways: via the mobile app or through the website. We have found it easiest to set up your account initially using the website.

Once you have created your account, any plans that you make or tickets that you purchase through Disney World will appear there, making it easy to handle planning tasks, such as making FastPass reservations and dining plans, purchasing the Memory Maker and even checking into your hotel online.

Later, you will want to connect with or add all of your friends and family who will be traveling with you. This can be tricky, so be sure to follow along with our step-by-step guide on setting up your My Disney Experience account.

Disney World Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride behind text.

With decades of experience in hand, we provide customized guidance, cutting through the confusion with clear explanations and actionable tips. We’ll help you create the best experience, with recommendations and travel planning advice based on the trip you want to have and the memories you want to make.

As travel agents with Mickey World Travel, we at Seconds to Go can take the fuss out of a Disney World vacation. Request your free Disney World vacation quote today!

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4. Walt Disney World Vacation Planning; Finding the Best Disney Resorts for You

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When tackling your Walt Disney World vacation planning, where to stay is usually one of the biggest questions. Generally, you have two choices: to stay at an onsite Disney-owned hotel, or to stay offsite at a non-Disney property (you can learn more about the onsite vs. offsite experience by reading this article).

Since Disney World accommodations are designed to fit all budgets, we usually recommend staying at on-site resorts. Value resorts can be booked for as little as $123 a night before any discounts and top out at $289 (traveling the week between Christmas and New Years). Fortunately, Disney usually puts out several special offers throughout the year to help you save on the cost of your resort stay. You may even find that some of the best Disney resorts for your trip are affordable with one of these money-saving deals. To see the current Disney World offers, read our continuously updated post on Disney World discounts.

By staying onsite, you will also be able to take advantage of Disney World’s complimentary transportation system for travel between your resort and the parks. This will save you a lot of money on parking fees.

You may also be able to take advantage of a package deal that could cut the cost of your hotel and tickets. Historically, one of the most popular ticket packages includes a free Disney Dining Plan for each member of your party during the length of your stay. (While the Disney Dining Plan was discontinued during COVID restrictions, we expect to see it return soon.)

Guests of Disney World resorts are also eligible for a perk called Early Theme Park Entry. With Early Entry, resort guests may visit one park per day beginning a half an hour prior to scheduled opening. It’s usually enough time to ride two or three headliner attractions before the park even opens.

Possibly best of all, by staying at an onsite resort, you’ll be immersed in the “Disney bubble” for the length of your stay. This means you won’t have to break the magic each night when you return to your hotel. The same magical wonder you experience each day in the park follows you right home to your resort at night, where incredible theming provides another immersive experience.

To find the best Disney resort for your stay, you’ll want to consider your budget first. As previously mentioned, you may book a value resort for as little as $125 a night, depending on when you travel, but a room at the top-tier deluxe resort, Grand Floridian, can easily cost you over $500 nightly.

Beyond budget, selecting the best Disney resort will depend on your preferences and the type of ambiance you prefer. Some resorts, such as Disney’s Caribbean Beach are festive, inspiring guests to party into the night. On the other hand, the old-bayou charm of Port Orleans Riverside offers a more laid-back vibe and quieter atmosphere.

To decide which Disney resort is right for you, you’ll want to do some research. You can take a look at our handy guide to Disney World resorts. It will explain the difference between the resort tiers and provide you with key decision-making criteria, such as room size, theming and other details. We’ve even provided a fun quiz for an easy way to find the best Disney resort for you.

5. Decide if You Want the Disney Dining Plan?

NOTE: Currently, the Disney Dining plan remains unavailable for booking into 2023. We hope to see it reinstated next year.

The next step of your Walt Disney World vacation planning is deciding whether to book the Disney dining plan. You’ll need to reserve a vacation package to take advantage of this option, so let’s first explain what it is.

The Disney Dining Plan provides two meals and two snacks a day at a flat cost for the length of your stay. There are three options: the Disney Dining Plan with quick service, the Disney Dining Plan and the Disney Deluxe Dining Package.

The primary difference between these options is where you will eat and how much food is provided.

While the Disney Dining Plan with Quick Service and the Disney Dining Plan both offer two meals and two snacks per day, the plan with quick service option does not cover any meals at table service restaurants. You’ll be dining on the go for your meals, which isn’t bad considering that Disney has added a lot of restaurant choice in this category in recent years.

On the other hand, if you want to get off your feet and be waited on once a day, you’ll have to spring for the Disney Dining Plan. This option provides one table service and one quick service meal for each day of your stay for each person booked in your package.

The Disney Deluxe Dining Package is for those with a healthy appetite. The deluxe option affords you three meals and two snacks for each night you stay. Better yet, you can dine at any combination of table-service and quick-service restaurants.

If there is one question we get asked quite frequently, it’s how the Disney dining plan works and then, whether it’s worth it. Answering that question requires a post in and of itself, so we’ve created one. You can read all of the pros and cons of the Disney Dining plan to make your decision.

6. Make Your Disney World Resort Reservations and Purchase Your Theme Park Tickets

Disney Yacht Club resort at night, one of your choices to consider during Walt Disney World vacation planning
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You’ve now decided where you will stay and if you want the Disney Dining Plan. Now it’s time to book your accommodations and purchase your theme park tickets.

Tickets are available as a base ticket or as a park hopper ticket. Base tickets allow you to visit one theme park per day for each day of your trip.

Park hopper tickets make it possible for you to visit 2 or more parks on a single day. To explore the advantages of a park hopper ticket, you can read our blog dedicated to park hopping.

Theme park ticket purchases and onsite resort reservations can be made directly through the Disney World website or through a travel agent. Before making your reservations, however, you’ll want to decide whether you plan to book a room-only reservation or a package offer. A Disney World vacation package includes the cost of your resort as well as your theme park tickets. With a room only reservation, you will book your hotel and purchase your tickets in separate transactions.

Packages now include a lot of flexibility, including a low-cost $200 deposit, fully refundable cancellation up to 30 days before your arrival and a simplified way to book. A room-only reservation requires the cost of one night’s stay as a deposit, and you will need to pay for the full cost of your ticket at teh time of purchase.

If you’re wondering how far in advance you can book a Disney vacation, hotel reservations are generally available for the current year. Reservations for each new year have typically become available between July and October.

7. Make Your Disney World Park Reservations

In 2020, Disney World began requiring guests to make park reservations in order to attend a theme park. These measures were meant to control capacity at a time when social distancing mandates required it.

Theme park reservations have since remained and become part of the Disney World vacation planning experience. To enter a park on any given day, you will need to have a valid theme park ticket and a park reservation. Read our blog on the Disney World park reservation system for more information, or go to your My Disney Experience account to make your reservations.

You will need a valid theme park ticket for each member of your party before booking your theme park reservations, so make sure you’ve addressed step 6 above.

8. Consider How You Will Get Where You’re Going

The next step of your Walt Disney World vacation planning is deciding how to get to Disney World. If you’re close enough to drive, you’ll have built-in transportation while there. However, if you plan on flying, you’ll also need to consider how you will get from the airport to your resort hotel.

Disney’s immensely popular Magical Express, providing free transportation from the airport to each of the resorts, has been disbanded. That means you will need to either rent a car or hire transportation to and from the airport while in Orlando.

While a Disney car rental might seem to make the most sense, there are some things to consider. First, is the cost. This can vary greatly depending on the rental company you use and whether you have any discount codes. You should also be advised that there are many toll roads around Disney World, adding to the cost of your rental experience. You will also need to pay for parking at your resort.

However, there are times when renting a car makes sense. If you’re still considering a Disney car rental, we’ve covered all of the details and considerations in this post.

If your party size is small, and you don’t plan on doing much driving after you reach your resort, you might want to consider another mode of transportation to and from the airport. Uber and Lyft both service the Orlando airport as do many private car hire companies. Costs for Uber or Lyft service from MCO to Disney World average between $30 and $40 one way, depending on the time of day you travel and the size of the vehicle you will need.

You can also explore other options for ground transporation in our blog discussing alternatives to Disney’s Magical Express.

9. Make Advanced Dining Reservations (ADRs)

Making advanced dining reservations at restaurants such as Chefs De France is part of your Walt Disney World vacation planning
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As you get farther into your Walt Disney World Vacation Planning, you’ll probably notice some deadlines popping up in your My Disney Experience account. One of these is the date when you can start booking advanced dining reservations, often referred to as ADRs in the Disney community. If you’re planning on dining at any Disney World table-service restaurants, this is one step you won’t want to miss.

ADRs work in a similar fashion to a table reservation made at any restaurant, but there are a few differences. First, an ADR entitles you to a table for the reserved party size at or around the time you requested. However, a table is not held in waiting for you. Instead, you will be placed into a queue upon your arrival at the restaurant and be given the next available seats accommodating your party size.

If you plan to dine at any table-service restaurants on Walt Disney World property, including many establishments at Disney Springs, ADRs are essential. Like most steps in your Walt Disney World vacation planning, you’ll do this through the My Disney Experience app or through the Disney World website dining section.

If using the latter, make sure to login to your My Disney Experience account before making any advanced dining reservations. This will ensure that your reservations get added to your plan.

Advanced dining reservations have typically been made 60 days before your trip for Disney resort guests. This is another area where staying at a Disney World onsite hotel has its advantages. Guests of Disney World resorts are able to book ADRs at teh 60 day mark for the length of their stay. Guests at other resorts will be required to book their reservations 60 days before each day of their stay.

For full step-by-step instructions to making your ADRs, you can check out our Disney World advanced dining reservation article.

9. Decide if You Will Use GENIE+

NOTE: The FastPass+ system has been officially eliminated. It has been replaced by Genie+ and a new “Lightning Lane Service”.

If you’ve heard of FastPass+ (FP) and were hoping to take advantage of one of the Mouse’s greatest time saving inventions, you’ll need to revise your expectations. While FastPass+ allowed you to pre-book a spot in a ride queue via the My Disney Experience app or website, it is no longer available to Disney World guests and has been replaced by a new Genie+ service.

Genie Plus still assigns ride times in hour-long windows, and guests can arrive anytime in the assigned 60-minute time frame. Access to the ride is granted through a separate queue known as the Lightning Lane. Since the number of Lightning Lane assignments given out each hour is limited, wait times for those using Genie+ can be drastically reduced.

While Genie Plus sounds very similar to FastPass+, there are some critical differences. First, with FastPass you could pre-book up to three FastPasses per day beginning 60 days before the start of your vacation if you were staying at a Walt Disney World resort. Those staying offsite were able to book FastPasses beginning 30 days before arrival. This pre-booking option often made it possible for guests of Disney World resorts to secure FPs on popular attractions that would typically sport long lines.

With Genie+, you can only book ride reservations beginning at 7:00 am on the day you plan to visit a park. You may then book additional Genie+ reservations every two hours once the park officially opens or after you have used the earliest booked Genie+ reservation. That means, if you log onto the My Disney Experience app at 7:00 am and you accept a Lightning Lane reservation for 3:00 on Space Mountain, you will not be able to book any other ride reservations until you have used your current Genie Plus Lightning Lane reservation or until 11:00, which is 2 hours after the park opens

If you then book an additional Genie+ reservation, you would not be able secure another until 1:00. This does make it possible to stack Genie Plus reservations but not to book them ahead of your travel days.

The other major difference between the FastPass+ and Genie+ systems is the cost. FastPass was included in the price of your regular theme park admission. Genie+, on the other hand, will require a separate fee. The cost starts at $15 per person per day, but can go up depending on when you visit. On top of the extra fee, not every ride is included in Genie+. A handful of top tier attractions, those that often sport the longest lines, are not included in the Genie+ Lightning Lane service, but will require yet an additional fee to access the Lightning Lane.

For more information on Genie+ and Lightning Lane, please refer to our Genie+ guide, updated regularly as new information becomes available. You may also read our firsthand review of Genie+ based on our experiences.

As far as the impact of Genie+ on your Disney World vacation planning, you will need to weigh the cost against the expected benefits and determine whether the chance to skip the regular queue is worth the added expense. We have long been avid advocates for FastPass and were pros at optimizing its usage to avoid time in line. However, during our 2020 trip, FastPasses had been eliminated to accommodate social distancing. It was interesting, but we learned something we might not have realized otherwise. Standing in line with friends and family can be almost enjoyable as the ride itself.

The moral here is this: if your Disney World vacation budget doesn’t support the purchase of Genie+, don’t sweat it. Plan to do the most popular attractions early in the morning or late at night to avoid the longest lines and enjoy the time with your traveling companions.

If you can afford the added expense of Genie+, then by all means splurge for it. Just be certain to use it strategically to avoid the longest lines.

Whether you plan to use Genie+ or not, making an itinerary will help you make the most of your day.

11. Pack for Your Trip and Check Into Your Resort

Beginning about a week before your departure, it’s a good idea to start thinking about what you’ll need to pack for your vacation. View the weather forecast for your stay and pack accordingly.

We’ve assembled a Disney World packing list of items you’ll want to be sure you take along, including some things people commonly forget, so make sure to take a look before you leave.

This is also a good time to complete your online resort checkin if you haven’t done so yet. Online resort check in allows you to go right to your room when it is ready, instead of stopping at the front desk where you will likely have to wait in line.

If you provide a cell phone number during the process and give Disney permission to text you, they will notify you with your room number when it is ready. If you arrive before your room is available, simply stop by bell services and drop off your luggage. The very accommodating folks at each Disney resort will safely secure your bags while you visit the parks, stop by the pool or grab a bite to eat. When you’ve arrived at your room, simply give them a call and they will deliver your bags.

While online resort checkin is a great time saver, you may want to consider skipping it and making a stop at the front desk, if this is your first visit to Disney World. Front-desk cast members will provide you with the lay of the land, so to speak, and help you find your room. They may even provide a little extra “magic” to your stay.

A Disney World Checklist for Planning Your Vacation

When it comes to planning a Walt Disney World vacation, it can be hard to keep track of the many moving pieces. While this article has been designed to walk you through the process step by step, we’ve also provided a Disney World checklist. It’s a shorter version of the article above and can be used to check off steps as you complete them.

Download it today and get started planning your magical Walt Disney World vacation.

Download Our Step-by-Step Disney World Vacation Planning Infographic

10 steps Disney World vacation  infographic
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Kathleen Hesketh

Kathleen is a travel agent with Mickey World Travel, a platinum level Authorized Disney vacation planner, where she helps people discover the magic of a Disney vacation and other travel destinations. She is also the chief author and editor for Seconds to Go - a travel blog where she shares experiences from traveling the U.S. with her daughter, Ali.

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