A First-Timer’s Guide to Planning a Disney World Trip – Part One

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Over the past few years writing for the TouringPlans blog, I have been honored to get to help so many people from all walks of life plan Disney World trips for their families. In helping folks, one thing that I notice time and time again is how overwhelming planning a trip to one of the world’s most popular travel destination can be, especially for someone preparing for their first visit. Many people do not know where to start with planning. Some prospective visitors end up either giving up or making rookie mistakes which they pay for later on.

IMG_0732Many of our posts here at TouringPlans aim at Disney World guests who are already seasoned veterans. I imagine that for a first timer, the nitty-gritty details seem unimportant when you are trying to just figure out how the heck to get to Disney World. The next two posts of mine are for those of you that still need those trip planning training wheels. Get out a pen and piece of paper and let me walk you through the basics. 

Requirements

Every family has some kind of requirements or “givens” that are known from the get go. These are things that cannot usually be changed. First thing you need to do is write down your requirements. A usual requirement for most families is a budget. Maybe you have saved up for this trip or maybe you are preparing to save up and need to know how much this is all going to cost you. If your budget is entirely unlimited, you are one of the lucky ones. However, if you have some boundaries, write down a number that you would like to stay under. I would say that if you are willing to give and take a little bit, almost anyone can afford a trip to Disney World. What you can afford is so important because everything is affected by your budget.

Next up, determine if you have a specific range of days that you must travel in, whether it be because of work, school, or any other number of reasons. If sticking to a tight budget is your top priority, consider being very flexible with your travel dates. You can save perhaps the largest amount of money this way.

WDW1Another common given is whether you are going to be flying or driving to Florida. If you are not sure, I suggest that you use an online map, such as MapQuest or Google Maps to determine if driving is a feasible option for your family. If it is, you might want to think about renting a larger vehicle to provide some more comfort for the drive. If you are like me and you know that you need to fly to Disney World because of distance reasons, investigate what it is going to cost you by using Kayak.com or another airline price comparison website. Keep in mind that some of the comparison websites sometimes do not include Southwest and/or smaller airlines.

The final given that I suggest you determine right away is if your family would like to travel off Disney property at any point. Many visitors would like spend a day at the beach or at a neighboring theme park such as Universal Studios or Sea World. Eventually, this will become relevant to certain aspects of your planning experience.

When & How Long

The time of year that you travel often determines what kind of vacation you will have. For instance, some people despise extremely hot temperatures. If that is you, avoid the summer months all together. Next, take a look at a yearly event calendar for the Disney parks and see if anything pops out at you as an interest. Christmas? International Food and Wine Festival? Star Wars Weekends? If your budget allows, choose the time of year that interests you most. Keep in mind that certain times of the year are busier than others. Special events and holidays usually draw in larger crowds. While you will always be dealing with other guests and lines no matter what time of year you go, you can avoid utterly painful crowds by not traveling to Disney World when it is at it’s busiest. There are down sides to the slower or “value” season as well. Sometimes the most popular and beloved attractions are down for a period of time due to refurbishment. Many first timers would be completely crushed if they missed out on riding Splash Mountain. You can pretty much guarantee that popular attractions will be open when the parks are busiest.

IMG_9906Certain days of the year are traditionally cheaper to fly on, such as Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Fridays and Sundays are most commonly the expensive travel days of the week. If you are planning on a full week of vacation, consider flying out on a Tuesday and back on a Tuesday. When airlines have big sales, there are usually days of the week that are blacked out. The days that will save you the big bucks are typically mid-week.

You need to determine your desired length of your vacation. While I like to suggest an entire week for a first-time guest, some of you might have a different number of days in mind for whatever reason. Less days usually means less expense overall and less potential for park “burnout.” However, by only giving yourself a short period of time to visit, you run the risk of missing out on some attractions, or even entire parks. Rushing to get things done means that you might not have the relaxing family vacation you imagined. Trips longer than just a few days allow you enjoy the parks at a slower pace without worrying that you are going to miss something that you expected to experience. It is best to try and strike a balance between how many days you can afford and how many days will satisfy your families needs.

Tickets

Disney lingo comes into play pretty heavily when talking about park tickets. Disney using the term “Magic Your Way” is a fancy way of saying that you can pick what you want. It all starts with a basic one-day ticket and you add what you wish from there. The more days you wish to play, the less it is to pay per day. Simple yes and no questions will help you figure out exactly what type of ticket you need for each member of your family.

Do you want to park hop? Park hopping allows you to travel from park to park on the same day. There are four major Disney theme parks that encompass the Disney World Resort. If you want to visit multiple parks on the same day, you will need to add the park hopper option to your Magic Your Way base ticket.

Do you want to visit one or both Disney water parks? Are you interested in DisneyQuest? If so, it is probably in your best interest to add on the “Water Park Fun and More” option to your Magic Your Way ticket.

Do you intend to revisit Disney World within the year? There are times that it makes more sense economically to purchase a ticket that allows you access to Disney World parks for an entire year instead of just the length of one visit. If this sounds like a possibility for you and/or your family, look into Disney’s Annual Passholder program.

IMG_9143Once you know what kind of ticket everyone in your party needs, I suggest that you figure out take a look at TouringPlans.com’s Ticket Calculator to determine where it would be cheaper for you to purchase tickets from. Most of the time it is a better deal to purchase tickets online before your vacation from a reputable company that is authorized to sell real Disney World park tickets. Also, keep in mind that you can upgrade any Magic Your Way ticket as long as there is still one unused day available on the ticket. This means you can add more park days or upgrade your ticket to include the park hopper option even after you have already purchased your initial ticket.

Hopefully I have not totally lost any of you along the way in this edition of Disney World 101. Please feel free to ask any questions that you might have regarding what I have covered in this post. Trust me when I say that there is no such thing as a dumb question.

What are you finding to be the most difficult part of planning a Disney World vacation? Let us know in the comment section below and hopefully we can be of some help!

 

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Posted on April 30, 2013

44 Responses to “A First-Timer’s Guide to Planning a Disney World Trip – Part One”

  • by Stephanie Warner on April 30, 2013, at 9:59 am EST

    What I felt was overwhelming when I planned my first trip (we went just a few months ago) was the dining options… do we get a dining plan or not, if so – which dining plan to get. In addition – you need to reserve sit down dinners as soon as you decide to go to WDW!!! I think you really need to figure out what your dining needs/wants are as soon as you decide to go.

    • Ahh, yes! Just deciding whether or not to get the the dining plan is an undertaking. It is almost too much pressure to bother with when you factor in crowds, travel, expense, reservations, and menu options. I think Disney actually puts too much pressure on prospective guests to make dining a huge part of their vacation. For many first timers, a dining plan just stresses them out more than it helps them. As much as I LOVE Disney dining and I find it something that sort of tops of an already perfect trip, I try not to let it ruin my entire vacation if I cannot get a coveted reservation.

    • Given the current price of the dining plan relative to menu prices, I think the answer is easy–don’t get it unless it’s free!

      • There is no such thing as “free” dining. You pay rack rates for the rooms and usually you could have saved more by taking the room discount and paying out of pocket for food. Some circumstances it works, but most it doesn’t

        • While I think that is probably true a lot of the time, when I went last October, we priced out not taking the “free dining” and yes the free dining cost a little more, but only about $100 more which was worth it to get food for 2 people for 5 days, because I doubt anyone could eat that cheap at Disney unless they brought all their food into the park. I would recommend you price out all options and determine what the cost of the “free dining” is and what it is worth for the convienence.

  • I’m sure you’ll get to this, but the most perplexing part of planning my first visit (my honeymoon in 2010) was deciding on an on-property hotel. I hadn’t been to the World since a brief school trip in the late ’90s (and I obviously didn’t get to plan that one!) I had settled on going Deluxe, but beyond that, it was fairly difficult to make a decision! Unless you’ve been down there, it’s hard to explain how different some of those options are. We decided on the Polynesian, which was fantastic, but I had oscillated between the G-Flo, Contemporary, and Yacht Club for weeks before my then-fiancee told me where she wanted to go!

    • I will be touching on this topic in the next section of this post! It is really perplexing to make decisions without actually being immersed in each resort’s ambiance. When you see reviews and ratings that are virtually the same, you wonder why there are so many different choices if they seem pretty much the same on paper.

      • Exactly! The resorts are pretty different in atmosphere, but it’s hard to communicate that to a newbie. Who knew the Paradox of Choice would apply at WDW?!

        Looking forward to your next post. This is a great series!

  • We went to WDW for 6 days last spring. I was most overwhelmed when trying to decide what park to attend each day based on crowds, which then influenced where we would eat. It was nerve wracking to make ARDs for each day. Although we purchased park hoppers, we didn’t want to needlessly go from park to park & waste time if possible. We plan to go again next year & I still feel nervous about deciding on a park visitation schedule. Touring Plans & the “Unofficial Guide” definitely helped me make all those decisions. Thanks!

    • Dawn, I agree! I was really nervous, wondering if the crowd calendar would change after we made our ADRs. But even if so, heck — we’ll be at Disney! YAY!

      (We are going in a month. Can you tell I’m a little bit excited????)

      • I have been planning my own Disney trips for years now and I still get nervous about this part of the planning. I should definitely write about what I personally do make sense of it all in Part Two of this article! Thanks for the great idea!

  • My husband the other day said he would like to do to WDW next time. We went to DLR in October. The second he said that, I got very anxious. The thought of trying to plan a trip to WDW which from what I have read is so darn HUGE and hard to get around, I told him I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. Thank you for helping us novices. :)

    • Go! Go! It is soooo wonderful! Just give yourself a year or two to slowly plan, save enough money to do the vacation you want, figure out where you want to eat so you can get reservations at the good places! (Hopefully you enjoy planning?) WDW is such a wonderful place!

      • I am a planner. I planned our DLR trip for a year and a half. That’s why WDW seems so overwhelming there is WAY more to plan, not to mention is literally across the country from us (we live in Seattle).

        • Trina, I am a huge planner as well. I find that planning for the WDW vacation, or any vacation for that matter, is almost as exciting as the vacation itself. As someone who has been to WDW 20+ times I can tell you it is much, much easier than it seems. Disney makes it super easy to get around the resort area with its use of Monorail, shuttle busses and boats. Also, the people at WDW are so awesome, anything you forgot can be taken care of once you get there. As for Dining, I have gone and made no reservations and gone with one for each day. It really doesn’t matter how you do it. If you have decided you are going to have a great time, you will. Everything will just kinda fall into place as soon as you see that speed limit sign with the mouse ears on top.

  • Stacey — what a great article! Being a total OCD weirdo, I LOOOOOOVE planning our Disney trips! I wish I lived closer and could go more often — and wish I knew more people going, so I could help THEM plan! Using your personalized touring plans option gives me little goosebumps of Disney joy!

    I would advise everyone to buy a copy of the most recent edition of the Unofficial Guide and read it cover to cover, with post-it notes nearby. It is an incredibly valuable resource!

    I would also suggest asking yourself what you WANT out of your Disney vacation. I have friends who go frequently, on a whim, and stay at Pop — with no plans. They consider WDW to be just like any other amusement park. A place to go for a few rides and nothing more. For me, going to WDW is an immersive experience! We like to enter the world and not leave it for a week! Stay on property, eat on property, take days off from the parks and explore all the free ambiance. Our family has had to compromise in that my idea of fun at Disney is adrenaline-fueled! I’d bring a pillow and sleep in the MK on the sidewalk if I could! My husband prefers a much more relaxed pace!

    So — just throwing in my two cents worth. Know your family and know what you want out of your vacation! And buy the UnO Guide!

    Thanks for a great article — I can’t wait to read the rest of them!

  • by Jayne Wright on April 30, 2013, at 10:56 am EST

    I agree with Stephanie, the meal plan options started to melt my brain!
    But we have a 4 and 7 years old that do NOT eat ‘kid friendly meals’. (12 days of eating chicken nuggets ..Ughh!) They like to eat what mum and dad eats.On the dining plan they often have to choose from the kids menu. So we have chosen not to go the dining plan route.We have researched and hope to get some reservations at buffet style restaurants .
    The OTHER most difficult part of planning is the question of getting a car or not?? we are staying for 14 days and was thinking of renting a car from a WDW resort. Just for the benefit of getting to evening dinner reservations at WDW hotels resorts like at Boma,Ohanas, and Sanaa restaurants. also to use on a night when we drop the kids at Neverland while we treat our self to a long awaited dinner out alone.
    I have heard the bus hopping can sometimes take a long time to get from resort to resort ?
    We are traveling to WDW the first two weeks of December and lodging at Port Orleans .

    • Jayne -

      My wife and I just got back from staying at WDW, and went resort-to-resort to go to Boma(amazing place, by the way). The trip back to our hotel(the Poly) took over an hour, because we had to go from AKL to Downtown Disney and then transfer to a Poly bus(which goes to the Contemporary first). It’s a real pain in the butt.

      There are sometimes ways to make it a bit easier with some planning. We booked Boma for the same day we were going to Animal Kingdom, so all we had to do was hop on the AKL bus. Had I thought it out a little more I would’ve made sure that it was a night when the Magic Kingdom was open later and we could’ve just taken a bus to the Ticket and Transportation Center and walked to our hotel after our meal. We would’ve been able to avoid going out of our way to Downtown Disney.

      If you don’t plan on getting a car I would definitely recommend becoming very familiar with the bus system(as well as the watercraft, since you’re staying at Port Orleans) and how it works.

      • Brian is exactly right here. If I know I want to dine at an Animal Kingdom Lodge restaurant on a specific day, I make sure that that is my Animal Kingdom park day, or vice versa. Just make sure that you allow yourself enough time for travel so you will not be late for any reservation.

        • Thanks for the advice Brian.I am glad you have confirmed that the buses can take some time. We will definitely be booking AKL restaurants the same day we visit the park .
          How long did you spend at AK park ? Can this park be ‘done’ in a day or do I need to plan to spend two days here ?
          Also did you dine at the California grill at the contemporary hotel ? if you did would like to hear you opinion.
          Thanks Jayne

          • Jayne -

            We stayed in the park until around 6 and then headed over to AKL. Our reservation was for 7:30, but we wanted to spend time hanging out at the hotel and checking out it’s private wildlife area, which was amazing. The hotel is stunning, easily in the top 5 resorts, and well worth budgeting time for.

            I haven’t eaten at California Grill, but by all accounts it’s fantastic, albeit very pricey. It’s being renovated right now, so it’ll probably look fantastic when you’re there. Can’t beat that view!

          • Jayne,

            AK is def a park that can be done in a day if you plan correctly. Use the fastpass system, get there early and use your time wisely. If you plan to see a lot of shows and such, it might be a stretch but it can be done. I typically plan two days because I have a five year old, we don’t like to be rushed and we love the live shows. Just like anything else, its all in what you want out of it. :o)

        • Will do. Just wish I had a ‘Tardis’, so I didn’t have to waste anytime traveling at Disney. I will be using the crowd calendar to plan my two weeks. I cant wait : )

  • How soon in advance can I buy my tickets? We are planning to go to WDW late March 2014–can I buy tickets now? How about PhotoPass in advance? (I’m thinking it will make our budget a little friendlier if we try to space things out a bit).

    • by David Davies on April 30, 2013, at 12:29 pm EST

      You can purchase tickets immediately for WDW. Never-used tickets purchased today do not expire (although that could change in the future; who knows what Disney will do?). Our Ticket Caluculator (http://touringplans.com/walt-disney-world/ticket-calculator) can help you find cheap tickets from reputable vendors.

      You can also buy PhotoPass in advance (http://www.disneyphotopass.com/specialoffers/wdwppp.htm).

      Some people also create special vacation savings accounts or buy Disney gift cards to force themselves to save for a trip.

      Whatever you do, be sure to keep whatever you buy in a safe place so that you do not lose it before your trip!

      • Luckily, Disney usually gives a warning of ticket price increases, so be on the lookout for a post regarding that. You can then purchase your tickets before the price hike to save yourself some money. Contrary to popular belief, buying your tickets and booking your Disney hotel room together in a package does not really save you money unless there is some deal going on and you are able to take advantage of the discount.

  • My tip would be buy the Unofficial Guide.

  • Stacey –

    Great job with the post. Wanted to let you know that entrance to DisneyQuest was included as a basic perk as one of those “extras” that Disney put in our travel voucher when we were there last week. Not sure if it was a random, one-time thing, or if it’ll become standard.

    • For the Magic Your Way packages for 2013, guests are given 2 one-day admission tickets to DisneyQuest. Keep in mind that the “perk” is per room reservation and any guest under 14 must have a guest over the age of 14 with them to enter. If your entire family wants to visit or you want to enjoy DisneyQuest for more than one visit, you will need to upgrade your ticket to include the Water Parks Fun & More option or purchase extra admission tickets.

  • This is a great article. I was completely overwhelmed when I started planning and it was so stressful. I wish I had had this article then :) But at least I bought the Unofficial Guide and that helped.

    Now that we are 8 days away from our first trip to Disney, I would LOVE to see a list of essential items to bring with us. I’m so worried about missing something critical to our comfort and enjoyment.

  • No one in the lower 48 really NEEDS to fly to WDW. It’s just that most don’t want to take the time to drive. But when I was 10, we drove 1200 miles (each way) to WDW. I LOVED the drive!

    I think people who despise hot weather need to avoid a lot of Spring and Fall too…ha!

  • My biggest ‘tip’? You can’t do it all in one visit. :)Park Hopper is definitely worth it for our family. It lets my husband take our oldest son out for nighttime EMH at any park they want. I love the flexibility of not being tied down to one park for the day. I’ve seen the recommendation for annual passes if you’re planning on going again in the next year. Really worth the savings if you spend a week at the parks each year. Our family of 5 would save about $600, which would add up to about 2 free nights at Art Of Animation. Now if I could only convince my husband of that. ;) Also, I think spending an extra $100 or so to get a babysitter for a few hours is a great idea. Taking small kids to Disney is really exhausting for both you and the kids. It’s a nice way for everyone to get a break from each other.

  • I agree with Neula. Park hopper is a must so you can attend fireworks when it is not raining or cold. The annual pass has saved me hundreds over the years. I would recommend to all nubies, Know what you want to do when you get there. I’ve seen to many families enter Magic Kingdom, and then stop to read the map to decide what they want to do. It cost to much to waste time guessing. Touring Plans has great ideas. Any WDW information can be use to save time. Spend a little extra and get a couple of books for the planning. The kids will love to help.

  • I am in the process of planning our families first trip and the Unofficial Guide has been hugely helpful. The thing that really helped us pick a resort was to do a travel time budget. I knew with three littles we were coming back to nap every day, so I guessed how many times we would do which parks and used the table in the book to figure out how much time we would spend in transit (bus or monorail) for our top half dozen picks. It really illuminated things. We are staying at the Contemporary on a DVC rental, but our next choice was Art of Animation.

  • For a first time planner, I would recommend trying to go off season. The cost of your trip might be half of what it is during peak times. You also have a lot better chance of getting to do everything you want. On our trip in early Oct of 2012, we were able to go to all 4 parks in 4 days, ride all our favorite rides at least three times, see every other show and ride every other ride we were interested in (and some we weren’t all that interested in), and attend the Food and Wine Festival (amazing!) and Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party. We also never had a hard time getting buses (never waited more than 5 mins) and they were rarely crowded, and this made park hopping to enjoy EMH easy and efficient.

    While I am sure we would have enjoyed our trip if we had gone during a more crowded time, I doubt we would have gotten as much out of it or have felt so prepared and able to deal with planning. Having such a great first trip, make planning a second trip more exciting and more manageable and made the money we spent well worth it!

    Also, I would love to see more on blogs and in guidebooks on traveling to Disney as a young adult (think 18-25ish). The UG was really helpful, but I would have loved to see a touring plan designed for young adults as well as more reviews aimed at that audience. Disney has a lot to offer for this age group!

    • Your comment is encouraging about low crowds. I’m going for the first week of the Epcot Food & Wine Festival and will visit all four parks over five days. Because I haven’t been back to WDW in a long time, I thought I would skip MNSSHP — this time. It’s on Th-F of that week and I was planning on being in Epcot anyway. If I feel I’m ahead of schedule in Epcot, would I be able to purchase a ticket that week?

  • someone above mentioned obtaining the unofficial guide; what is that and where do i get one?

  • I love planning our vacations. We have gone to DLR every year since 2006 and I have that trip planning pretty well mastered. This year I talked my husband into taking our two boys (7 and 4) to WDW at the end of May. I have been planning since January and think I have everything under control. Hardest part is planning which park on which day and where to eat, so I could make reservations. That had me pretty stressed for about 2 weeks. I have a co worker who hates to plan her family vacations, and asked me to plan her family’s trip to WDW. She says all the choices of hotels alone is to overwhelming. Along with planning this trip I am also planning a trip to Princeton, NJ and Manhatton for the end of June, and I am already thinking about next summer’s vacation….Yellowstone???

  • Hi, simple question – are you able to use another day’s ticket to go to a second park in one day? The answer must be no because the cost of a 6 day ticket (for example) is significantly cheaper than a 4 day park hopper. We are going to 4 parks in 4 days after Labor Day and I only foresee one, maybe 2, days where we might want to hop. Trying to decide whether it’s worth it to get the park hopper. No brainer at DLR; not as sure at WDW. Thoughts?

    • Hi Kitty-

      Disney sells the ‘Park Hopper’ add-on for Magic Your Way tickets at WDW, and that’s how to visit two parks in one day. It would make sense to park hop if you’re trying to maximize your time in the parks, such as if you wanted to leave the Animal Kingdom around 4 and go to another park until closing.