Ready to Plan a 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 fun and painless. Here’s everything you need to know in 12 steps.
Plan a Walt Disney World Vacation
When you plan a Walt Disney World Vacation, things can get overwhelming! Really overwhelming. Between all the parks, transportation, fun extras, and those must-try Disney Snacks we felt like our heads were going to explode! The first time we went to Walt Disney World together, it was a disaster. We had lists, backup plans, and 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. If 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.
How to Plan the Perfect Walt Disney World Vacation
A good Disney vacation is one where you can just show up because all the big decisions have already been made. 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 of years check out our Disney Quick Guides for the nuts and bolts of everything you need to know, from MagicBands to Transportation.
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. These are just some of the things that will get you feeling knowledgeable and ready to embark on the task of planning. Will you have an extra day or two for shopping at Disney Springs? Will you want the downtime of a cupcake and sand between your toes on the Boardwalk?
Set up a Disney Account
The first step to planning a Walt Disney World Vacation is to 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 a lightning lane, access Disney Genie, include 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 and they won’t be able to manage it themselves. Obviously, this is fine for minor children. But for grown-ups within your family or family group, it’s best to let everyone create their own accounts and connect them afterward.
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 if you haven’t been to Disney in the last few weeks. Download the app called “My Disney Experience” onto your phone and sign in to 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 lightning lanes, restaurant reservations, and tickets.
What Can you do in the My Disney Experience App? You can…
- Get tickets
- Make dining reservations
- Cancel reservations
- Find something on the map
- See your Memory Maker photos
- Access Disney Genie+ and Lightning Lane Passes
- Keep track of all your reservations, and dining reservations
- Mobile Order your food
- See what time the bus will show up at your resort
What is the Best Time to Visit Walt Disney World?
Time to choose your vacation dates. When you plan a Walt Disney World Vacation you will want to be aware of all the vacation options. 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.
- Disney World in the Spring
- Disney World in the Summer
- Disney World in the Fall
- Disney World in the Winter
Shoulder season and off-season in Florida mean we get milder weather, fewer 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. Check out the Disney World Event Calendar for events that are happening during your trip.
Choose How to Get There
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 traveling with a carload 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 further out to get the best price.
Choose Where to Stay
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. This method means you actually Plan a Walt Disney World Vacation within the Disney website, by choosing the resort, tickets, dining plan, and the number of days first. 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. And check out the Disney Resort Levels and Pricing post for an idea of resort types and costs.
STAY OFF-SITE 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. As such VRBO is a great place to check out. Take a look at the Vacation Homes Near Walt Disney World to make the most of your trip. Or you can try an Airbnb. Grab our discount AirBnB Discount code.
Cons: You won’t get on-site perks like Early Theme Park Entry. And plan to drive in Orlando traffic or hire a car (as opposed to having the Disney bus drivers do it for you).
Pros: Disney partner hotels are actually quite close to Disney. Many offer airport, and Disney Springs shuttle services 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 ticket cost. Check out the Disney Good Neighbor Hotels to try, if you’re hoping to stay close to Walt Disney World.
- Best Western Lake Buena Vista
- Hilton Orlando Buena Vista Palace
- Drury Plaza Hotel Orlando Disney Springs
- DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Orlando – Disney Springs® Area
- Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista
- Holiday Inn Orlando – Disney Springs® Area
- B Resort & Spa – Disney Springs® Resort Area
- Wyndham Lake Buena Vista Resort – Disney Springs® Area
- Four Seasons Resort Walt Disney World
Cons: They are not Disney themed. And they aren’t necessarily cheaper than a Disney Resort stay. They don’t have on-site food courts, bus service, or Disney gift shops. So you won’t be getting the “Disney bubble” experience, that may be your preference anyway! 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 60 days before your vacation and Early Theme Park Entry.
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. Check out Disney World Event Calendar for all the publicized events we know of.
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.
- Disney Value Resorts: Bus transportation. Pop Century and Art of Animation also have Skyliner transportation.
- Disney Moderate Resorts: Bus Transportation. Caribbean Beach Resort also has Skyliner transportation.
- Disney Deluxe Resorts. Bus transportation. Some offer monorail, ferry, and Skyliner transportation.
- Disney Boardwalk Resorts: Within walking distance of EPCOT and Hollywood Studios.
- Disney Monorail Resorts: Within walking distance of Magic Kingdom.
- Disney Ferry Boat Resorts: Ferry boat resorts are located near EPCOT and Magic Kingdom
- Disney Skyliner Resorts: Includes Skyliner access to EPCOT and Hollywood Studios.
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 cling graphics, 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 at your own pace.
Buy your Tickets or Vacation 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 are a couple of 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 fewer tickets.
- We always recommend 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 like seasonal parties, and tours.
- 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 the 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 Disney 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 the 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. Plan a Walt Disney World Vacation like a pro by focusing on the fun stuff. If you hired a travel agent chances are they’ve walked you through some of the details around lightning lane 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.
Get Your MagicBands
MagicBands are Disney World’s current wearable technology that holds your tickets to the parks, and passes, opens your resort room, and pays for things via a connected credit card. The arrival of Disney’s MagicMobile Wallet technology works in tandem with what MagicBands and can be downloaded from the My Disney Experience App.
In the 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. All MagicBands are for a cost, but you can buy MagicBands on shopDisney.com or purchase them in the My Disney Experience App as well.
Book Your Transportation
Getting to and from Orlando International Airport to Walt Disney World can be easy. Even if it’s not as easy as it once was. Currently, your best bet is to take the Merars Connect Driven by Sunshine Bus for a cost a per-person fee. This service offers an easy bus service from the airport and can get you to your Walt Disney World Resort. If staying off property at Disney World ride-sharing like Uber or Lyft is best. With a flat cost for whoever may fit in your chosen vehicle. Once inside the Disney World property be sure to take advantage of the complimentary Disney Transportation.
Build Your Disney Itinerary
When you plan a Walt Disney World Vacation one of the most important things you will do is to choose which Disney Park to Visit Each 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. 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 to the Best Days to Visit Each Disney Park.
- Animal Kingdom Park
- EPCOT Park
- Hollywood Studios Park
- Magic Kingdom Park
- Disney BoardWalk
- Disney Springs
Book Dining Reservations
Know that before you check out with your Disney Package on the website, you can choose to buy a prepaid Disney Dining Plan. This is sometimes a bargain and a lifesaver. Though makes sense most on longer trips. You can reserve dining up to 60 days in advance so if you’re a last-minute planner, keep in mind that what you want on your chosen day may not be available. 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 a walk-up counter and doesn’t require a reservation unless it’s 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.
- Animal Kingdom Restaurants
- EPCOT Park Restaurants
- Hollywood Studios Restaurants
- Magic Kingdom Restaurants
- Disney BoardWalk Restaurants
- Disney Resort Restaurants
- Disney Springs Restaurants
Having a good Disney Ride Planning Strategy is important. But in the absence of pre-planning, you can take advantage of Disney Genie+ for a cost and individual Lightning Lane Ride Selections for a cost. Obviously, since this could get pricey- we recommend planning rather than procrastinating. Check out the Best Rides at Walt Disney World for some ideas on what to add to your trip.
Add Disney Special Events
You’ve nailed down your dining reservations which will determine which park you’re in on which day. 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 check out 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. And know that some things, like EPCOT festivals and the Happily Ever After Fireworks Show are FREE entertainment, and don’t cost you a thing.
Disney World Parties, After Hours, and Tours
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 experience, 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.
- Animal Kingdom’s Wild Africa Trek Animal Kingdom
- Behind the Seeds Tour at EPCOT Park
- Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party Magic Kingdom
- Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party Magic Kingdom
EPCOT International Festivals
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. We often plan a Walt Disney World Vacation around our favorite festivals! 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.
Decide What to Pack
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, 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 caddies at every resort as well as the water parks. Here are all our packing tips to get you on track.
- Camera Bag Essentials: What’s in My Bag?
- Day Bag: Park Essentials for your First Day
- 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 when you plan a Walt Disney World Vacation it 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 it’s 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.
Rochelle Mariah is a writer, designer and photographer with an MLIS in Information Science and a B.S. in Arch and Design. Determined to make Planning a DIY Disney Vacation easier she makes lots of lists and drinks lots of coffee. When not designing apparel at Polka Dot Pixie Shop, she's watching old movies and planning the holidays. She has been traveling to Disney destinations since 2010.