When you have booked your Walt Disney World vacation, you may hear a lot about the need to plan, plan, and guess what, more planning! However, if you are completely new to Disney World, this may seem like a very daunting task. So with this in mind, I thought it may be helpful if I took you through, step by step, how I plan our family trips, and hopefully you will pick up some helpful hints along the way. First of all, I do want to acknowledge that there will be many who really don’t enjoy having to plan their vacation ahead of time or having their every move pre-decided, and that’s absolutely fine! However, if you have never been to Disney World before, then I would really recommend that you try and plan even a little. Having a basic idea of what your family wants to see and do whilst on vacation will help you make the most of your stay and hopefully enjoy it even more! It’s also a lot of fun because you get to enjoy your vacation long before it even starts! So let’s start planning…
Create a Planning Template
When planning our trip, the first thing I do is create a planning template like the one below. I find it much easier when all my planning is on one page, and if you’re a super keen planner, you can even make it look really nice and take it with you on your vacation! So let me talk you through exactly what information I include on it.
- The days/dates of your trip. Simple. Along the top row, I fill in the days and dates of my trip.
- Extra Magic Hours (XMHRS). For each day of my trip, I fill in the XMHRS information for that day – the park and times. This information can be found by clicking here. Even if you are staying offsite, still fill it in! Trust me I will explain in a moment!!!
- After Hours Ticketed Events. I now try and find out if there are any extra hours ticketed events happening during any of my days, like MNSSHP (Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party) or other planned events. Again, this information can be found by clicking here. Even if you don’t plan on attending these events it is still useful to know if and when they are happening, as it could influence where you spend your time. *Helpful Hint*: If you are planning and the dates of these events have not yet been released but you think they usually happen at this time, go to the Park Hours page for the days you’re going to be in Disney World, and if any park is closing earlier than usual, i.e. Magic Kingdom 7pm when it usually closes at 9pm, this may indicate that an event is scheduled. It obviously isn’t a definite, but it may be enough for your planning. So now I should have key information filled across all three top rows of my plan!
Make a list of ‘Must Dos’
- Down the side of my planning sheet, I will make a list of what our family wants to see and do during this trip. This will include shopping days, water parks, and other Orlando based attractions. So every family’s list will look different, but ours for this year is as follows:
- Magic Kingdom
- Animal Kingdom
- Hollywood Studios
- Shopping at Disney Springs
- Water Park
- Pool time at our resort
- Universal Studios/ Volcano Bay
Deciding how to apportion each day
- When planning Disney World vacations, I always split our days into three: morning, afternoon, and evening, and I only make plans for two out of the three each day.
- *Helpful Hint*: Disney World can be an exhausting place with all the walking, the heat, and the crowds, so scheduling chill time could help your family enjoy it more. It is, of course, still doable to power through from rope drop to the final kiss goodnight, if you are wanting to maximize your park time. However, always keep in mind your family and how long they can go. It may seem great on paper clocking in 12 hours at the Magic Kingdom, but if you are leaving with exhausted, tired, and cranky kids, it may not be ending on such a magical note after all!
- On previous trips, we always did mornings and evenings in the parks, and that left the afternoon for chill-out time at our resort. It got a 2-year-old out of the mid-day sun and allowed him a cooler environment for him to have his nap. With the Florida heat, we often hit a brick wall after 5 hours in the parks, so scheduling chill out time mid-days usually works best for us. As he gets older we will probably do a mix of all three of the options below. *Helpful Hint*: You can leave and return to the same park with your base park ticket. If you want to return to a different park, you will need to have the park hopper option added. If your ticket is the UK version it usually includes this.
- Morning : Park / Afternoon : Free/ Pool or Resort time / Evening : Park (same or different depending on our dining)
- Morning : Free / Pool or Resort time / Afternoon + Evening : Park
- Morning + Afternoon: Park / Evening : Free/ Resort time
Deciding our Daily Itinerary
So how do I decide which parks I want to visit on which days? These are just some of the things I will consider when plotting out my trip days. I will also be using my ‘must-do’ list to ensure I have planned enough time to enjoy it all.
- Our family always visits Magic Kingdom on our first day when possible. No scientific reason for this one I am afraid. Just some good old fashioned Disney traditions! After all, it is the most magical place on earth!
- We try and stay on property most trips, so we do have the option of enjoying XMHRs. If I think I can get my family up and out for early morning XMHRs I will schedule that park for that day. However, as my little boy gets bigger that could be a challenge! So instead we may aim to skip early morning XMHRs parks and do alternative parks those days. Where it suits, we will instead plan to be in the parks that have XMHRs scheduled in the evening. So here is my *Helpful Hint*: If you are staying on-site, only scheduled to be in the XMHRs park if you know you will be there during the actual Extra Magic Hours. Extra magic hours are a great Disney resort perk during the actual hours, however, it does make the named park generally busier with resort guests. If you’re staying offsite, then it is usually best to avoid XMHR parks; again for the same reason, it will be very busy! So on your template, you will be able to see which parks have their XMHRs on what days and then you can plan accordingly.
- Magic Kingdom can sometimes be less crowded on a morning following a scheduled XMHRs evening. The same rule could apply to Epcot. So if you are not using the XMHRs, then you could consider this when making your plan! (Don’t quote me! But it does work! Sometimes!)
- If you are planning your trip 180 days + then you will be making your schedule before you have your Advance Dining Reservations (ADRs). However, if you are planning closer to your vacation, and you already have your ADRs booked, then this will pre-determine at least part of your planned schedule. There is nothing wrong with this! If you have to be in the Magic Kingdom for dinner at Cinderella’s Royal Table, then that’s a good a reason as any to be there! So if your ADRs are already in place, add them to the ADRs row and then you know where you need to be at these times.
- We typically travel during September, which now happens to be the start of the Food and Wine Festival most years. This makes Epcot very busy, especially at weekends, with the locals coming in to enjoy the new samplings. For this reason, I try to plan to visit Epcot on weekdays only. I also always avoid the first couple of days of Food and Wine, because the crowds tend to get crazy!
- Personally, I feel certain parks are more suited to the evenings. For example, my family prefers enjoying Epcot in the evening as opposed to during the day. So we often plan more dining oriented evenings at Epcot. We also learned last year that Animal Kingdom at night is an even better experience with the cooler temperatures and more entertainment options. So again we will be planning more evenings there as well. That leaves our mornings for Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, and water parks.
- Having an idea of what you want to see and do in each park can help you know when you should be there. If you only plan to be in the Magic Kingdom in the mornings, but you want to see the Festival of Fantasy Parade, which is typically scheduled mid-afternoons, then you will want to adjust your plan. For more information on attractions and shows in each park click here.
- If you plan to spend an evening at a park, make sure there is not an extra hours ticketed event happening, e.g. on a MNSSHP evening, the park will close earlier. Check your plan and if any of these events are scheduled, plan accordingly. We typically stay at Disney World during times when party events are scheduled, so we always plan to be in the Magic Kingdom on a non-party evening so that we can enjoy the normal castle projection and fireworks show. This is, of course, only necessary if you don’t have the party ticket for that evening!
Finally, it is time for your Advanced Dining Reservations
We will have the Regular Disney dining plan this trip, so we will have a certain number of table service credits to use.
- On my planning page, I will write down a list of our favourite restaurants that we want to enjoy again, and then a few new ones which recently opened that we have heard good reviews from. I will then start adding these restaurants into our plan, depending on which restaurant suits our location for that day the best. The list is a good checklist, so that I don’t forget any!
- Once I have added these restaurants into our plan, this will then make it a lot easier for me once my 180 window opens up. I will know exactly what I need to book, and at what times.
- I usually try and have a couple of evenings planned in most of the parks. This will then give a little flexibility when it comes to my dining for the hard-to-get reservations. If you are scheduled to be in the Magic Kingdom twice, then it gives you two potential dates for a reservation at Cinderella’s Royal Table!
- If you usually go to any other vacation destination, then the thought of booking your dining restaurants up to 180 days in advance may seem a little crazy! However, if you want to eat at the more popular restaurants, especially character dining, then it is needed. These restaurants could potentially have very long wait times without one, and some don’t even accept walk-ups depending on how busy it is! *Helpful Hint*: The dining reservations can be adjusted or cancelled up to 24 hours before, so if your plans change, even while on vacation, your dining can be adjusted too!
- Having an idea of where you want to eat may influence your actual schedule too! Look at the plan, and if there are any after-hours ticketed events happening e.g. MNSSHP, and you don’t plan on having a party ticket for that evening, then you will need to make sure your dining is scheduled within normal park hours. *Helpful Hint*: You will not be allowed into a park to dine in a restaurant during a ticketed event unless you have bought the ticket for the event. Assuming you are already inside the park and at your dining location before the park closes, you will be allowed to stay past normal close hours to finish your dining experience. However, once you have exited the restaurant, you will need to exit the park too.
- Having your dining planned out, at least in rough draft, is also a good indicator if your planned itinerary will work for you. Or it may highlight a few issues. For example, on our last trip, I had planned to eat at a lot of restaurants around World Showcase in Epcot. However, whilst on vacation, we found ourselves wanting to spend much more time at Animal Kingdom in the evening, which meant we had to rethink some of our dining for the last few evenings. So if it doesn’t all work out exactly, then you will need to decide what is more important, the destination or the dining experience. There will be good arguments for both!
- So start thinking about your dining! If you aren’t sure of the options, why not take a look at the restaurants in each park that you hope to spend your evenings and choose from there. For this information click here. Once your ADR window opens up it will hopefully make booking them so much easier as you already have a basic plan.
Room for FastPass + …
You will notice I have room in my planner to add in my FastPass+ selections. The window for booking FastPass+ will open up 60 days before with a resort guest or 30 days out for non resort guests, so this is something you can do much closer to your vacation. It is not absolutely necessary to have a plan for these, but by looking at it beforehand, it will give you an idea of what attractions can be selected with FastPass, and as a result what would suit your family for that day. FastPass+ means you get to skip the regular standby lines for three attractions or rides in the park you are visiting that day, and when used wisely, can really save you a lot of time. So if you have a think about it, and write down what you would like to FastPass, and approximate times, then it should help you get exactly what you want when your window opens up.
As you can see from the template, I have filled out the first column as an example of how our first day should look for our upcoming trip. So, depending on how little or how much you like to plan, hopefully this step by step guide will make it a little easier for you when you are planning your trip to Disney World. The idea of the plan really works for our family and I have found it to be the simplest way to do it! (At least for our family anyway!) So go on, have a go with this style of planning and enjoy your trip!