I should start this post with a caveat: I am not a theme park person. I associate them with crowds, expenses, lines, motion sickness, and bad food. The thought of going to Disney World instantly stresses me out. Our typical family vacation involves driving somewhere in Texas. We are frequent visitors to the Gulf Coast throughout the year and often stay at vacation rentals so we can cook meals. Easy and chill.
So how did I end up booking a trip to Disney World? It started with the kids begging to go somewhere on a plane this summer. Then, Disney and LEGO theme parks started serving my kids non-stop ads. I was hesitant. Of course I want them to have a magical Disney experience, but the cost seemed extreme. When Disney started serving me ads assuring me that I’d get 30% off if I booked now, it happened: I got total Disney FOMO (fear of missing out). So we did it. My husband and I caved and booked a Disney World vacation.
The next morning I ended up in a co-worker’s office having an anxiety attack after looking at the final cost. Then the panic to plan set in. I haven’t been to Disney World, and all you hear about is how you should start planning like six months in advance. I googled what I should do first and downloaded the Disney app, which I think is somewhat not user friendly. I checked out planning guides from the public library because I just dropped way too much on the vacation to shell out more money on a book. I was facing complete choice overload. So I want to share some tips I learned during this process to help you in your Disney planning adventure.
Where to Stay
This is an overwhelming choice with some 100+ resorts nearby to choose from, including 25+ official Disney Resorts. Is it worth it to stay on Disney property, or do we stay offsite to get the best deal? Do we need a kitchen? Can my family survive in one room together for a week? There were so many decisions. We chose to stay at a Disney property simply for the ease of getting back and forth to the parks with our kids. Next, we looked for the best price and the resort with the most transportation options to the parks.
I booked the hotel and park tickets quickly and then realized we still had to get to Florida somehow. The prices for flights to Orlando from San Antonio were not that bad when I booked. However, there are not a lot of non-stop flight options, which makes a lot of difference if you are traveling with children, particularly young kids. When planning, don’t forget that the big online travel services, like Expedia, do not include Southwest Airlines, so don’t forget to check Southwest’s website individually.
If you stay at a Disney Resort, the Magical Express shuttle will pick you up from and drop you off at the airport. Most dedicated Disney planning blogs and websites suggest using ride share, like Uber, to take you just about anywhere. Plus, you can have groceries delivered to your hotel through a plethora of services, including Amazon. Because we are staying onsite and can rely on the Magical Express shuttle and various transportation options to/from the parks (monorail, bus, etc.), I am opting to not rent a car.
This is where things get really complicated. You can pay for everything individually or sign up for the Disney Dining Plan. You can book restaurants 180 days in advance. I started planning our trip about 75 days out, and a lot of options were already booked. Who are these mega planners?! We still have months to go until our vacation; how am I supposed to know where we want to eat and which park we will be in on that day?! Couple that with some really picky eaters, and I spent way too many hours planning our dining experience. To secure a few good options, I ended up booking multiple reservations per day, as you can cancel whichever ones you’re not interested in closer to your vacation. I’m assuming that others may use this same logic and that some reservations will open up closer to our travel dates.
Disney allows you to book your Fast Pass+ selections either 30 or 60 days out, depending on where you are staying. At exactly 60 days out, an alert on my phone woke me up at 6:00 A.M. to start booking our Fast Pass+ options. By 6:30 A.M. (CST)/7:30 A.M. (EST), the current most coveted of all Fast Passes—to access the Slinky Dog Dash at Disney Hollywood Studios—were completely taken. Several other rides had limited availability—merely 30 minutes into our Fast Pass access period! That will teach me to hit snooze. To further complicate the Fast Pass+ system, rides and shows each have tier levels. You also need take into account where each ride is located when booking your Fast Passes. Can your kids haul it across the park in time? Luckily, all Fast Passes are booked in one-hour time slots to help with flexibility. On that note, if you need a stroller, you can rent one at the park. If you are bringing your own, note that Disney has just updated its policy on the size of strollers allowed in the parks.
According to the Disney website, “Guests of select hotels can enjoy extra time in one of the theme parks each day, either before it opens or after it closes…” These are known as Extra Magic Hours. During our trip, Extra Magic Hours are only offered a couple days a week and not at every park. We likely will not be taking advantage of them, as they don’t line up with the aforementioned Dining Plan and Fast Pass plans that I’ve already spent hours putting together.
A trip to Disney World is probably sensory overload for anyone. But because I have a young child and an autistic son, I plan on using the Disability Access Service pass Disney offers. Here is a blog post from one of our sister sites that goes into detail on how this pass works.
Disney has many options for behind-the-scenes tours, character cruises, dessert parties, and more. Do I want my own personal princess makeover? Yes! Yes, I do! Do I want to pay the price? Nope. I did, however, pay to use Disney’s Memory Maker PhotoPass service, as I am rarely in vacation photos because I am the one always taking them.
Were my dedicated hours of planning and plotting worth it? I honestly have no clue. Now we must wait until our summer vacation to see if it all goes according to plan. I should add that my sister planned an entire Disney World vacation within a month—and on a budget!—with the help of a professional Disney planner, and it went swimmingly well. So if you haven’t started planning but want to visit Disney this summer, it’s not too late to get in on the magic.
For more Disney tips and tricks, check out Taylor’s post from the archives here. If you have Disney tips or advice, please share in the comments below.