Ready to Plan your Walt Disney World Vacation? If this is your next, your only or your first Disney Vacation you’ve come to the right place! We’re covering everything we could think of in the hopes of making your Disney Vacation Planning a fun and painless experience. Here’s everything you need to know in 12 steps.
COVID Update: Before we dive in take a look at our How Planning Your Disney Vacation in 2020 and 2021 is Different post. If you’re traveling during this or next year, some fundamental things have changed that will affect this process. This post has been Updated as of September 2020.
- 1 Disney Vacation Planning
- 2 SET UP A DISNEY ACCOUNT FOR EACH PERSON IN YOUR FAMILY
- 3 DOWNLOAD the MY Disney EXPERIENCE APP
- 4 The Best Time to Visit Walt Disney World?
- 5 Should You FLY OR DRIVE TO DISNEY?
- 6 CHOOSE WHERE TO STAY AT WALT DISNEY WORLD
- 7 BUY YOUR Disney TICKETS OR PACKAGE
- 8 CHOOSE YOUR MAGIC BANDS
- 9 BOOK Disney’s MAGICAL EXPRESS, if flying and staying on property
- 10 Which Disney Park to Visit on which Day?
- 11 CHOOSE YOUR DINING RESERVATIONS
- 12 CHOOSE YOUR FAST PASSES
- 13 ADD YOUR DISNEY SPECIAL EVENTS
- 14 WHAT TO PACK FOR YOUR DISNEY VACATION?
- 15 LET IT GO
Disney Vacation Planning
- Set up a Disney Account for each person in your family
- Download the My Disney Experience App
- Choose your Vacation Dates
- Choose your Transportation
- Pick Where to Stay
- Buy Tickets or Package
- Choose your Magic Bands
- Book the Magical Express
- Choose Which Park for Each Day
- Choose Your Restaurants
- Schedule Your Fast Passes
- Add Your Special Events
Planning a Walt Disney World Vacation
Planning a Walt Disney World Vacation can be a little overwhelming. The first time we went to Walt Disney World together, it was a disaster. We had lists, backup plans, everything booked and, in the end, left absolutely no room for error, adjustments or all those things that happen in real life along the way. But, here’s the thing. By having a GOOD PLAN in place, you can make mistakes knowing that most of the big things are already taken care of and booked.
It’s raining, and you feel your vacation is ruined? Thankfully, you have dinner booked at Liberty Tree Tavern with a cozy thanksgiving meal waiting for you later.
There’s a 90-minute line for Peter Pan? No worries, you have a fast pass for that ride booked tomorrow.
A good Disney vacation is the one where you can just show up, because all the big decisions have already been made.
Here’s what you need to know Step by Step when you’re Planning a Disney Vacation.
The PERFECT Disney Vacation happens when you know stuff
If this will be your first time at Disney you’re probably trying to troubleshoot everything. If it’s going to be your family’s Only Disney Vacation, you will want it to be perfect. And If you haven’t visited in a couple years here’s a few things you need to learn about right away.
And to get a handle on all four parks at Walt Disney World we have put together a checklist for each. These posts include the best rides, restaurants and shows for each park.
You’ll also want to learn about the Disney Boardwalk and Disney Springs.
And if you’re committed to having every detail figured out ahead of time, grab our favorite Disney Vacation planning tool.
How To Plan a Walt Disney World Vacation in 12 Steps
SET UP A DISNEY ACCOUNT FOR EACH PERSON IN YOUR FAMILY
You can set up a Disney account for each person in your family here: https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/
It should be no surprise that Disney’s website is stellar. Creating all your accounts and adding all the family members for the first time may be a little daunting though so it’s best to get this semi-fun part out of the way.
In order to reserve fast passes, includes family on your dining reservation, get in your hotel room etc. every single person in your party will need an account.
Once on the site, these are a few things to know. You are the owner of your profile, and anyone else’s profiles you create on your account.
CREATE YOUR DISNEY PROFILE
- Create your own account with your own email.
- Send an invite link to every other family member ( spouse, children, relatives) that may be joining you and have them register on their own. You can later “find” that relative and add them to your ” Friends and Family” list.
- If you have young children, you can create their accounts under your email. Just be sure to make sure you turn off purchasing privileges with the magic band for these accounts.
WARNING: Do not be helpful and add an account for your niece, grandmother, or husband…etc. This will make you the owner of their account. Which means any minor relative on your account will not be able to be modified by their own parent because you own their account. Your husband’s purchases at the Rose and Crown will come off your credit card attached to your account, and your grandmother won’t be able to managed by her husband. I know its confusing, but it will be worse if this rule is broken.
Best bet. Let everyone create their own accounts and connect them afterwards.
DOWNLOAD the MY Disney EXPERIENCE APP
Did you know Walt Disney World has an App? They do. Do not underestimate the power of this app. In recent weeks the app has changed so re-familiarize yourself with if you haven’t been to Disney in the last few weeks. Download the app called “My Disney Experience” onto your phone and sign into your account. This links completely with your account online, so if you’ve planned everything online in My Disney Experience, it’s all accessible in this app. This includes your fast passes, restaurant reservations, and tickets.
What Can you do in the My Disney Experience App? You can…
- Get tickets
- Make dining reservations
- Get a FastPass
- Cancel reservations
- Find something on the map
- See your Memory Maker photos
- Keep track of all your reservations, fast passes and dining reservations
- Mobile Order your food
- See what time the bus will show up at your resort
If you download the Shop Parks app, you can access it from this app also. If you’re in search of the Greetings from Walt Disney World coconut you can send home to your family.. the Shop Parks app is invaluable for finding out where the products you want can be found.
One of the best things about the app is that it shows wait times for rides which means you can show up at Walt Disney World without a plan and still have an amazing time.
The Best Time to Visit Walt Disney World?
Time to choose your vacation dates. If you already know the dates of your vacation, then you can move right onto step 4 to figure out how you’re going to get there. If not, then consider the best time of year to visit Disney. We are big advocates of “shoulder season” and “off season”. This would be anytime between September and March, though keep in mind Disney’s many festivals will have the place crowded during select weekends. You can check a variety of crowd calendars, but we often find them conflicting. Check out our whole post on the Best Times To Visit Disney regardless of when you go.
Shoulder season and off season in Florida means we get milder weather, less crowds, and a faster ride home on the bus at midnight. While we sometimes have to battle the rain which happens often in the fall and spring, it’s better than 15 hours, and 13 miles in the sweltering heat. We’re not exaggerating, at Disney we often have extremely long days and lots of walking- chances are you do too. Definitely something to consider if you’re toting little ones or older parents.
Should You FLY OR DRIVE TO DISNEY?
Your choice for transportation could be based on money or convenience but it’s really all about you. What can you stand? How much time do you have? Do you actually like driving? What time of year is it? What are you willing to give up? Time or Money or both?
Drive to Disney?
Road Trips are a blast, but not if you’re travelling with a car load of small children, only have a few days off work to fit in a vacation or have to drive more than 24 hours and can’t afford to stop at a hotel on the way. Keep in mind this isn’t always cheaper! So if you’re driving to save money- think again. If you, however, like driving, plan to see a few other places along the coast on your way and have a week or more to commit then you’re good as gold,Go ahead and drive. Check out https://www.carrentals.com/ for deals if you choose to drive and need to rent something. Also, take advantage of your fuel perks through whatever grocery/gas partnership is near you to get some of that gas for free. Know that Orlando hotels and Disney Resorts have parking fees. So be sure to add in parking costs both at your hotel and in the parks if you choose to drive. Here are our 5 Reasons to Drive to Disney.
Fly to Disney?
It’s only recently we started flying every time we go to Disney, unless we’re wrapping it into another trip. Orlando, Florida is 16 hours from Cleveland, Ohio nonstop. And while we are a road tripping family, we know better than to go up against the West Virginia roads tucked in the mountains in February or think we can make it without stopping at a hotel for the night. Also, when it only takes 1.5 hours to fly, why spend 16 hours in the car? For us, this is an easy choice. No extra hotel cost, no gas, no extra mileage onto our cars, and no frustrating weather/traffic experiences to endure.
Southwest is always our airline of choice, though we’ll fly Spirit if the price is right. If you sign up for Rapid Rewards at https://www.southwest.com/ you can earn points on everyday purchases if you link your bank card, credit cards, etc. Try to book 45 days before or even farther out to get the best price.
CHOOSE WHERE TO STAY AT WALT DISNEY WORLD
If you’re going back and forth on where to stay you have some options. Let us just say the EASIEST way to take care of this step and the next one is to book a Make Your Way package directly on Disney’s website. A make your way package will limit you to Disney Resorts only but has tickets included in the cost.
If you need more flexibility and want to buy tickets separately, you can airbnb, or stay off- site. There are pros and cons for each of these options so pick the one that’s best for you.
STAY Off Property AT A RENTAL / AIRBNB
Pros: If you go with renting a home you have a little more freedom, can explore Orlando and can leave the Disney craziness behind when the day is over.
Cons: You won’t be able to book dining or fast passes as early as people who stay on site, which means those things you want may not be available. If staying off site your fastpass selections can be booked 30 days out (as opposed to the 60 days for resort guests). You also miss out on any package deals (free dining, discounts for staying on site, cheaper tickets for longer stays). And plan to drive in Orlando traffic or hire a car (as opposed to having the Disney bus drivers do it for you). Grab our discount AirBnB Discount code.
Pros: Disney partner hotels are actually quite close to Disney. Many offer airport, and Disney Springs shuttle service so you can get close to the action. If you carry points at a certain hotel chain, you can use your points to offset your Disney Park tickets cost.
Cons: They are not Disney Quality. By this we mean they often have bugs- it’s Florida swampland folks- it’s a pretty standard occurrence for everywhere in Florida except Disney World. They aren’t necessarily cheaper than a Disney Resort stay. And they don’t have an on-site food courts, bus service or service from the Magical Express. Read more about Staying Off-Site at Walt Disney World.
STAY AT A DISNEY RESORT
Pros: They are on-site. They qualify you for early dining reservations at 180 days before your vacation and fast pass selections 60 days before your vacation. If you are flying, the Magical Express will get you there and your bags will magically show up in your room. Your washrags will be folded into little animals. You’ll have access to the food court, pools, a laundry house, gift shop, special Disney evening programs like movies, smores, and trivia.
Cons: Sometimes it can get a little crazy. Check google or call Disney for non-Disney events that may be happening at Disney while you stay. You don’t want to end up at a resort that’s housing a high school band, or sorority event and be up all night. Note: You’ll see this mainly at the All Stars Resorts, since they’re the cheapest, but we’ve stayed several times without running into this issue. And if this does happen to you, Disney will do everything to make it right- just ask.
Read more about the Perks of Staying on Property at Walt Disney World. You can also check out our growing list of Disney Resort Reviews to help narrow down the choices.
FUN DISNEY EXTRAS TO KNOW IF YOU STAY ON-SITE
- Resort Window Decorating: Did you know that you can, and are encouraged, to decorate your resort window? Whether it’s clings, paper art, or a full blown window display with twinkle lights this is a super fun side project for the kids to work on while you’re doing important vacation planning stuff, and helps build that sense of pride as a true Disney vacationer at your resort.
- S’mores night: S’mores are offered as part of the evening campfire fun at the Beach Club Resort on the Boardwalk and Great Wilderness Lodge. You can however, just hop over to Beach Club at the end of your day at Epcot to join in on the fun, even if you’re not staying there.
- Bike Rentals @ Select Resorts : 18 dollars per person, bikes are available from these resorts and allow you to meander about at your own pace.
BUY YOUR Disney TICKETS OR PACKAGE
Once you’ve made the decisions regarding all of the above, you can book a Disney Vacation right on the website: https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/ , connect with a Disney Vacation Planner, or book through a travel agent. If you’re not confident about doing this part on your own and just want to show up, reach out to a travel agent. If you’re trying to save every last penny, you can get tickets at a discount and have a Disney Vacation Planner help you connect the dots and craft your vacation. And be aware of all the Disney Deadlines when it comes to what to book when and cancellation dates if needed.
BOOKING A DISNEY VACATION ONLINE
Here’s a couple things to know.
- You’ll need a percentage down to reserve your package. This is usually 200- 500 dollars depending on which resort you choose.
- You’ll have the option of adjusting the number of days you have park tickets. If you’re planning on getting in late, or just staying at your resort the first day or last day adjust your ticket days so you’re buying less tickets.
- We always recommend to just stick to One Park Per Day, but if you want to park hop and pay extra you have options. Read up on the pros and cons of the Park Hopper tickets before booking. Choose the Park Hopper( allowing you to go to multiple parks on the same day) or Park Hopper Plus ( to add water parks) before going onto the next screen.
- Add a Dining Plan. Sometimes you can get the dining plan for free, so watch for those special dates throughout the year ( they’re usually announced the third week of April). You can read about Free Disney Dining here.
- On the final page you can add special events, enter in your flight details so you can book the Magical Express ( a free service), and see your total amount. If you don’t have your flight yet, you can always add that later.
- Your computer will know you’re searching for a Disney Vacation after you visit the site one time and hike the price each subsequent time. This means you’ll get higher prices each time you visit the site. So if you’re on analysis paralysis mode and expect to visit he site about 20 more times before making a choice, keep your computer cache monster at bay. Be sure to clear your internet cache or check out rates from your phone or another computer.
Know that booking on your own through the site is sometimes cheaper than going with a service. It also gives you complete control if you need to shift dates on your vacation or number of people. Any changes to your trip should be made 45 days in advance to avoid fees. See our Disney Deadline Timeline for details
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER YOU BOOK A DISNEY VACATION?
Now the magic begins. If you hired an agent chances are they’ve walked you through some of the details around fast passes, reservations, and special events.
If not, be ready for check in emails, choosing your magic band colors, and getting pointers by mail for what comes next. Disney will take care of you along the way.
CHOOSE YOUR MAGIC BANDS
In My Disney Experience, click on my account, click magic bands and cards and select your magic band colors for yourself and your family. This has to be done at least 11 days before our vacation in order for you to receive them in time. If you don’t pick your magic band colors, you will receive gray ones. MagicBands are also customizable with special characters now at a discounted cost, so you’ll see this in the app as well. If your trip is last minute and you don’t get your magic bands in the mail (standard delivery practice) you will receive them when you check in at your resort. While you will get a new magic band every time you book a vacation, you can also link previous magic bands and specialty magic bands to your current account. Read more about MagicBands and What you should know about MagicBands being REPLACED by new technology.
BOOK Disney’s MAGICAL EXPRESS, if flying and staying on property
Taking the MAGICAL EXPRESS TO DISNEY
If you’re flying in, you can book the magical express simply by checking the box on your reservations page. It’s free. If you’ve already booked, just jump back into your account “change reservation” and add the magical express, you can also do so by calling or chat.
Once you’ve shared your flight information on your reservation page Disney will automatically know when you are arriving. Then will link your magical express reservation to your magic band.
They will send you luggage tag tickets in the mail for each person in your party. Be sure to put this luggage tag on your luggage prior to going to your home airport. Once you check your luggage at your home airport the next time you will see this luggage is in your Disney Resort Room. You will not wait for it at the Orlando airport upon your arrival. Instead you just head to the Magic Express area of the airport and check in. Read our Guide to the Disney Magical Express.
Taking the MAGICAL EXPRESS FROM DISNEY
On the evening before your departure you will receive your Magical Express instructions in an envelope on your door. Guests have joked this sometimes feels like an eviction notice. This will tell you what time to leave your luggage at the checkout station at your resort. You can still visit the parks on your last day. Your luggage will safely find its way to the airport and onto your plane without you seeing it again until you arrive at your home airport. One thing to note. If you are taking a late flight, Disney may send your luggage ahead of time to your home airport. In the event that you don’t see your luggage on the carousel check in at the luggage office at your airport. Chances are it’s there safe and sound. If any of this sounds confusing, know that we’ve done this many times and have never lost our luggage, so no worries. Disney knows how to take care of you.
Which Disney Park to Visit on which Day?
With your calendar in front of you, be sure to pick which Disney park you plan to be in on which day. Walt Disney World has 4 parks; Animal Kingdom, Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Hollywood Studios. This is by far the most IMPORTANT Planning Step. Check out which park is best on which day if you want lower crowds. Even if you have the park hopper ticket you don’t want to spend half your day traveling between parks. See our Guide of the Best Days to Visit Each Disney Park.
As a result of the 2020 Closure of Walt Disney World due to the COVID Pandemic ALL guests must now make Park Pass Reservations ahead of time. So your restaurants, fast passes and special events each day should be made based on which park you will be in that day. Read more about How to Make Park Pass Reservations.
CHOOSE YOUR DINING RESERVATIONS
Dining reservations become dog eat dog during Disney Free Dining time. You can reserve dining up to 180 days in advance so if you’re a last minute planner, keep in mind that what you want on your choice day may not be available. Disney COVID UPDATE: Dining Reservations now must be made 60 days in advance. This may be temporary. You can read more about the Changes at Walt Disney World for details. For this reason, we suggest you Make Dining Reservations FIRST. Table Service is sit-down and includes Character Dining experiences at some restaurants. Quick Service is walk up and doesn’t require a reservation unless its a table service restaurant. For instance you can get a quick service lunch at Be Our Guest but you have to make a reservation to be there for lunch. Otherwise just check out our favorite Quick Service restaurants for easy non-reservation dining options. Once you’ve figured out at least 1 restaurant per day you can reserve them, knowing that if nothing else, you’ll have a nice place to eat for every day of your vacation. Check out all our Disney Restaurant Reviews.
CHOOSE YOUR FAST PASSES
It’s important to remember that you can only pick fast passes for one park on one day. You will get three to start. Read our complete guided on Fast Passes. And read through the checklists to make sure you’re picking a fast pass for a ride you’re actually visiting that day. And be prepared to snag a Rise of the Resistance Boarding Pass with these hacks on your Hollywood Studios day.
Disney COVID Update: Disney Fastpasses are paused for 2020 and potentially through 2021. Catch up on the details of the Changes at Walt Disney World due to the pandemic.
ADD YOUR DISNEY SPECIAL EVENTS
You’ve nailed down your dining reservations which will determine which park you’re in on which day. You’ve used that info to help book your fast passes. Now for those special extras that will make your Disney Vacation special. Which Disney Parades are the best? Should I watch every fireworks show? What about Character Meet and Greets? If you get to the point where you want to plan your days to the minute and need some good suggestions on what to see, do, and eat checkout these posts. These are by no means completely comprehensive, but we promise they have a lot of good stuff you won’t want to miss. Disney COVID Update: All parades and fireworks are temporarily cancelled due to the pandemic.
SPECIAL DISNEY EVENTS, PACKAGES AND PARTIES AT WALT DISNEY WORLD
While some people are keen on saving money on their Disney trip, other people are keen on trying out every new cool thing that is offered! If you’re in it for the experiences, check these out. Special events, tours and parties DO COST EXTRA, but sometimes are totally worth it and can add an extra layer of adventure to your vacation. Check out these separate posts of our reviews.
ANNUAL FESTIVALS AT EPCOT WALT DISNEY WORLD
Epcot is the Disney Park with the festivals. And since we’re suckers for things we can look forward to every year, so annual events at Disney are right up our alley. Luckily, they have several of these yearly events, all involving amazing foods that you can try as your stroll around the world showcase. Chances are your vacation will fall during a festival, so read up and make sure to check it out.
These are FREE! And don’t need to be booked, but you can be aware they’re happening during your stay.
WHAT TO PACK FOR YOUR DISNEY VACATION?
Once you have all the specifics of your vacation planned you can concentrate on another important task, figuring out what to pack! This will depend on who is going, but take our word for it, the less the better. Florida is hot most of the time so simple clothes, tennis shoes and sunglasses or a hat are necessities. If you’re hitting the parks or hanging out in the pool you’ll need a bathing suit, but you don’t need your beach towel unless you have the extra room. Disney has beach towel caddy’s at every resort as well as the water parks. Here are all our packing tips to get you on track.
- Disney Camera Bag Essentials: What’s in My Bag?
- Disney Day Bag: Park Essentials for your First Day
- Disney Packing Tips for A Casual Disney Vacation
- Disney Packing Tips for Winter at Walt Disney World
- How To Pack Light for A Short Trip
- Things You Need to Buy Before Your Vacation
LET IT GO
No matter what remember that Planning a Disney Vacation is supposed to be fun. If at any point you’re freaking out about not getting the right reservation, take a breath and let it go. All restaurants at Disney are good. All rides at Disney are good. Seeing the fireworks is still pretty magical even if you’re not in the right fireworks viewing location or stuck on the top of a broken down ride. Know that your vacation will be amazing because its Disney and there’s no place like it on Earth.
We hope you have a great time planning and going on your Disney Vacation. Reach out if you have questions. We’re not travel agents or anything but we are annual passholders and disney bloggers and have visited enough to know what we’re talking about most of the time. So feel free to reach out if you have questions along your planning journey.