I’m fortunate enough to be able to plan a trip to Walt Disney World for this spring. It’s been about 4 years since my last trip, and 2 years since my last Disneyland trip. The trips I’ve taken with my family and by myself have been memorable and completely satisfying.
There’s no right or wrong way to plan or enjoy a Disney vacation. But, for what it’s worth, here’s how I go about making sure that we all have a great time.
We’re Going to Disney World — So Get to Work
I have to admit that over the years, I’ve become a bit of a Disney planning fanatic. Normally, I’m not that focused control. I’m just as happy, in my career, and at home, to sometimes, let others lead and do my part. But, when it comes to a Disney theme park vacation, other imperatives come into play.
First, I am the acknowledged, resident Disney “expert”. I can’t match the expertise of those that visit the parks many times a year. But, in our family, I’ve spent the most time reading and keeping track of most things Disney. My family all love going, have their likes and dislikes, preferences and want to have a great time. But, they want and expect me to lead the planning. My wife and I do a lot of planning for other vacations (yes, we go places other than Mickey’s house). Half the fun of our vacations is the planning. It builds excitement. And for Disney vacations, it brings back many memories of past trips.
Second, even with any discounts I can find, and reasonably priced airfare from NY, a 5-7 day trip is still probably more expensive than other trips to non-Disney places have taken. So, I want to get my monies worth. For me, that means, limiting time on attraction lines, and getting reservations to restaurants where we want to eat, while building in some down time.
Planning a WDW Vacation has Changed
In the dark ages of Disney trip planning, twenty plus years ago, before many of the current web sites had matured, I used to build spreadsheets, with all of the information, including, ADR numbers (Advanced Dining Reservations), attraction dates and times, fastpass windows and everything else we would need to enjoy our trip. This was all neatly laid out in columns for the dates and rows for times of the day with rows for meals, parks breaks and plane info. I’d scour the various Disney community forums and even subscribe to rec.arts.disney.parks, a holdover from the text-based way of interacting with a community of Disney parks lovers.
These days, there are many websites that offer a ton of information to help plan our vacation. Many of the ones I lean on are listed on my Disney Web Sites I Like page. I still look for helpful hints and tips, especially for things that I haven’t experienced or for changes in the way Disney “helps” you arrange visits. Some things that have changed over the years and affect my planning are: Fastpass+, (more on that later) resort parking fees, ride services, dining plans, evening and daytime parades and shows, morning and evening magic hours, Downtown Disney/Disney Springs and of course new attractions/Lands. Other things haven’t changed much and I’ll get into those things in a bit.
As a technologist, I can’t help but approach trip planning in the same way I do any project — Start with goals and assumptions. Our Disney vacations involve a lot of decisions, compromises and a fair bit of hoping for a constant source of Pixie Dust. So, for this Disney trip, we hope to:
- Make sure everyone has a great time
- Experience long time favorites
- Experience new things
Nothing unusual or earth shattering here. But, no project can be successful without being able to make decisions that are in line with what we’re trying to achieve.
Next, we look at some things that we decide are in our control and some which are not. As I thought about these, I was quite amazed at how many there really are. For this trip we assume:
- All family members are adults and are ready to take on all kinds of experiences. Our son, who has a Cast Member friend, may join us part of the time. Our son may not join my wife and I all the time, to spend time with his friend
- We will stay at a moderate, Disney Resort for 5 nights and 6 days. We’ve done onsite and offsite hotels. Even though we end up with a few less hotel amenities, having Disney all around us, the transportation options and convenience, and extra magic hours leads us to choose a Disney resort. Our time in the room is spent primarily sleeping or resting, and getting dressed.
- A Cast Member friend will get us a significant discount on our resort room, so we will not be able to take advantage some extras offered in the Disney vacation packages
- Our Cast Member, friend will be able to get us into one of the Parks for free on two of our vacation days. But, we will not know which days, until about 2 weeks before our vacation (more on this later)
- Our flight from New York will arrive early in the AM and leave late in the PM on the last day, all to maximize our time in the Parks.
- Breakfast will always be at the Resort Quick Service restaurant
- Most lunches will be quick service
- We will try to build in an afternoon break into our daily activities, to rest before Dinner or time back in the Parks.
- To save money, we will not be buying Park Hopper passes
- We always want to minimize waiting on line for attractions, even if it means extra walking. (Good excuse for exploring the Park)
- I’m going to use a TouringPlans subscription to keep track of everything. I’ve been using the Unofficial Guides since their earliest editions. I like their honest reviews (not everything in and around the Parks is great) and have found their touring plans to be helpful in maximizing our enjoyment of the Parks. Their website has a huge amount of information and with their Lines app, I no longer have to keep paper versions of our plans and can update things real time.
- We want to experience Pandora and it’s 2 new attractions. We plan on spending 2 days in AK so we can do the headliner attractions there twice and still do other family favorites.
- We’ll spend 2 days in MK and one day each in HS and EP
How We Plan
I don’t know if we do anything really unique, but here is how our our planning process works:
- Pick dates for the vacation. For this trip we decided to travel just before the big April school vacation dates and far enough away from our daughter’s June wedding.
- Pick a Resort. We’ve stayed at Deluxe resorts, Animal Kingdom Lodge and the Polynesian, moderates, The Caribbean, Port Orleans Riverside and Value, Pop Century. This trip we are being coat conscious. But can stretch because of some of the savings mentioned in my Assumptions section. We will stay at an old favorite, Port Orleans Riverside (We were there when it was the Dixie Landings).
- It’s close to Hollywood Studios and Epcot
- Good pools
- Many Disney bus stops
- Rooms are comfortable size with 2 sinks
- Good theming overall
- Select the least crowded parks for each day. We usually spend a few more days than this at WDW, so we will look for Extra Magic hours (EM) where we can get in early or stay late to take advantage of less crowds. I know there are those that say “stay away” from the park with EMH. I still think it helps. Here’s’ what we chose:
- MK on our travel in day
- HS (morning EMH)
- AK (morning EMH)
- AK (morning EMH)
- MK (evening EMH)
- EP on our travel out day (morning EMH)
- Restaurants. As we love to eat, (I discussed some of our favorite restaurants in A Foodie Travels in Disney World) our next decisions are for table service restaurants. This works out well since Advanced Dining Reservations (ADRs) can be made 180 days in advance. In some cases we are eating at a particular restaurant on the same day we visit the Park. Other trips we have purchased Hopper tickets and were not quite so limited. We’ve made the following choices:
- California Grill (Not been there since the 80s, so new for us)
- Hollywood Brown Derby (a family favorite)
- Sanaa (a lunch, new for us)
- Chefs de France (a lunch, new for us)
- Skipper Canteen (new for us)
- Quick service meal we planned include:
- Satu’li (new for us)
- Columbia Harbor House
- Quick service meal we planned include:
- Choose our Fastpass+ attractions.
But first, a word about Fastpasses (FPs). I understand the the current FP+ system is supposed to accomplish 2 things: Give everyone a shot at Fastpasses for popular attractions; Help to manage the crowds at those same attractions. I’m not a fan of the current system. I don’t want to spend my vacation waiting on line, if I can avoid it. I liked being able to get as many FPs as I could, until they ran out. I would build walking time into my daily plan to send someone to get FPs (The Unofficial Guide used to call them runners) when they were available. As a result, I almost never rode a popular attraction like Space Mountain without a FP and I often rode more than once a day. Now, not only am I limited, realistically, to 3 per day, I also have to deal with the tier system in 3 out of the 4 parks. The original FP wouldn’t have required me to choose between Soarin’ and Frozen Ever After. If I was smart, I could get both of them at least once a day. I often feel sorry for those that don’t take advantage of FPs, even today, and wait on interminable lines all day.
Further complicating things for us this trip are the 2 free park pass days, which we won’t know about until 2 weeks before we travel. So we can select passes on our first available date later this month. But, there’s a chance that by the time we know which parks we will get into, we may not find FPs for the attractions we would like to experience. So we are having to make 2 sets of plans for each day in the parks. One with FPs and one without. I may have to wait on line more than I want. I’ll update this page later, when we’ve selected our first choices.
- Finalize a daily plan for attractions including our FP+ windows.
That’s where things stand for now. I’m sure I’ve missed a bunch of stuff I do without really thinking about it. I’m still about 3 months away from the traveling. So, I’ll provide some updates as the dates get closer. One more thing. If you have a friend who’s a Cast Member, remember — It’s their job. It’s how they earn a living. Don’t abuse your friendship by making them feel as if they have to help you get a discount. Saving a few bucks on a Disney vacation isn’t worth jeopardizing your friendship.
How do you plan? What have I missed mentioning?