As y'all know, I am the biggest Disney fan ever. I LOVE planning our trips and making sure that we have a game plan so we can really enjoy our time at Disney and NOT STRESS. I mentioned on Facebook recently that I had reworked our touring schedule based on crowd predictions and that generated a lot of questions. I have a Disney blog that I sometimes write on, but it's been a little neglected lately. I decided to write a post here on my main blog to answer a lot of questions people usually email me with. This is kind of an outline of my planning process and the resources that I use. I hope it helps! Since I have the Disqus commenting system, I can reply to individual comments. If you have a question, feel free to ask. There are DEFINITELY people who know more than me and everyone is going to have their own opinions on how they "do" Disney - all I can share is my experience! :)
The first thing is to know (and decide) when to go. We never go during the summer months to Disney World - too hot, too crowded, and the prices are higher. It's considered peak season (the holidays are also considered peak season). So that leaves a few weeks in the fall, winter and a few in the spring. Before everyone panics and thinks you can't go to Disney any other time, that's not true - I know lots of people that regularly go in the summer and they enjoy themselves. All I'm saying is that your first line of defense against a stressful vacation is going at a time that has lower crowds, temperatures, and prices. However, if you need to go when school isn't in session, the BEST thing you can do is use a touring plan (more on that in a minute). Look at your calendar and come up with several weeks that are options for you to travel, then go and look at a Disney crowd calendar to choose the best week out of your options.
As far as planning (and seeing all of these crowd calendars, etc.), I would HIGHLY, HIGHLY suggest joining touringplans.com. It's run by the same people that author my FAVORITE guide book, The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. Seriously, GO BUY THIS BOOK and read it!!! You will have so much more knowledge and you will feel like you have a game plan. When you join the website (a year's subscription is NOT expensive, and you get a discount if you own their book), you have access to all of their crowd calendars, and the most important thing - THEIR TOURING PLANS. Do not, and I repeat do not, go to Disney World without using a touring plan for each park. It saves you an amazing amount of time, and their research is unbelievable. They have it down to a science! Get familiar with their plans and you can customize them online when you're a member (again, it's WORTH the subscription!). That's exactly what I use for our trips and we have NEVER been disappointed.
Other websites that are really helpful:
allears.net - This is good for looking at every single dining menu at Disney. Very helpful in deciding where to eat!
yourfirstvisit.net - This has more crowd calendars and has useful "first time" information.
mousesavers.com - This is a great way to look at discounts and deals.
After you've decided what week to go, you need to sit down and decide how many days you want to spend in the parks. With young kids, I find that 4-5 days in the parks is perfect. We spend one day at Hollywood Studios, one day at Epcot, and two days at Magic Kingdom. Because of time constraints, we aren't visiting Animal Kingdom this time. I would MUCH RATHER spend two, more leisurely days at Magic Kingdom that fit in Animal Kingdom, but that's just our family preference. If we were in the parks an extra day or so, I'd absolutely do Animal Kingdom, but sometimes you have to prioritize. Some people might decide to leave out Epcot if they have young kids, but we really do enjoy Epcot. That's just an example of why it helps to read the guidebook and make educated decisions. Don't wing it!
Another thing to consider: if you get Park Hopper tickets (which I strongly recommend), you can leave a park early if you aren't feeling it or if you just want to split things up. Epcot is not a very kid-friendly park (but there are really cool rides for adults that you don't want to miss). There are a couple of things to interest them, but definitely not a whole day's worth. For non-toddler kids/adults, there are more options, so you just have to figure out how you want to spend your day. Bottom line: the Park Hopping option GIVES YOU OPTIONS. You aren't stuck in a park for an entire day without the ability to hop to another park. All that to say, figure out how many days you want to actually tour the parks.
After you've done this, on the Touring Plans website there is a spreadsheet that shows you which parks to go to on which day, based on historic crowds and predictions. This is how I decide in which order we tour the parks. You can look at each specific day of your vacation and find out which park is recommended, what the crowds will be like, etc. For instance, on this upcoming trip, we're going to Hollywood Studios, Epcot, then two days at Magic Kingdom. This decision was entirely based on crowd trends. When you combine this knowledge with a touring plan, you have VERY good tools to make the most of your trip. Believe me - you can trust these people and their research. It's INSANE how accurately they can assess what's going on in the parks and how to make the most of your time.
Once you've decided in what order you'll visit the parks, then MAKE DINING RESERVATIONS. You can do this 180 days out. If you want any type of character meal or sit-town ("table service") meal, you MUST make a reservation as soon as you possibly can, especially if you're going in the summer months. We typically do one quick service meal a day and one nicer, sit-down meal a day. We do 1-2 character meals per trip. I get a pencil and a piece of paper and make a chart of each day, then I simply write down which restaurants we want to go to. I've already decided which day we'll be in what park, so this part is easy. You can make good, informed decisions about restaurants by looking over the menus at All Ears. You'll also know how to plan financially (prices are listed on the menus). You can make your own reservations at disneyworld.com or call 1-407-WDW-DINE to talk with a real person. As long as you're doing things at the 180-day mark, you should be able to get most (usually all) of the dining reservations you want. Character meal reservations go VERY quickly and certain table-service restaurants do too (for instance, Be Our Guest, the new Beauty and the Beast-themed restaurant, is EXTREMELY popular for dinner reservations). But if you have a game plan together before your 180-day mark, you should be fine.
*Character meals are totally worth the money. You get to knock out a meal and you're guaranteed one-on-one time with each character that's there. This saves you time in the long run! For instance, we always do a Princess character meal and this means we don't have to spend part of our day waiting in the "meet and greet" lines in the parks. Most (if not all?) character meals are a fixed menu and you normally required to PAY IN FULL when you make your reservation. You can always cancel your reservation, but just be prepared to pay the full amount for your entire party when you book. Also note which characters are typically present at each meal. This trip we are doing the Princess Dinner at Akershus (the Norway Pavilion) in Epcot, and we're doing Chef Mickey's at the Contemporary resort to meet Mickey and the other members of the Fab Five (Minnie, Donald, Goofy and Pluto).
*People often ask about the Dining Plan. I've heard from many sources that unless you eat a TON of food (and I mean a LOT), it's not worth the money. I've also heard it can be confusing keeping up with your credits, etc. We've never used it, and the only time I would use it would be if Disney offered a free dining promotion (which they sometimes do). I think you're better off paying out of pocket, but you will find differing opinions on this.
I book our hotel through my friend Heather Montgomery, who is a Disney travel agent. Her services are FREE!!!!! She has access to all of Disney's discount codes and specials, and she can save you MONEY. Contact her at email@example.com. I would contact her at the beginning of your planning process. Financially, your best bet for doing Disney on the cheap is to stay at a Disney Value Resort. They are great! I've stayed at them and you get all the Disney magic for less money. Keep in mind that the Value resorts are the furthest away from the parks, so if you're using the Disney transportation system (which is free to use), you'll need to allow travel time to and from the parks (I'd ask Heather about how much time to allow). Disney Moderate resorts are just that - they're in between the Value and Deluxe categories. Deluxe resorts are right on the monorail line and are the most convenient. But they're (obviously) also the most expensive. Just compare your options and see what fits your budget. There are good hotels off Disney property, and we've gone that route before, but overall I encourage staying on Disney property.
I buy my park tickets through Undercover Tourist. You save around $15-20 off the gate price, and shipping is free. They are a licensed dealer and definitely legit. I've used them for every trip and have never had a problem.
As far as how to GET there, we have driven to Disney many times, and it's definitely a good option! We only fly because we live in the Midwest and driving would just be WAY too far. Plus we found some great deals through Southwest's website. They offered a "Wanna Get Away" rate and that was the better option for us. But driving is great, too! There's a blog I read called Dixie Delights and she did some really cute things for their road trip to Disney. :) If you do fly, Disney offers a free shuttle/luggage handling service called the Magical Express that will drop you off right at your resort.
You need to decide what stroller you're going to use. You have three options: 1) Bring your own. 2) Use Disney's. 3) Rent from an outside company. We brought our own last trip, and it was fine. It was kind of a hassle to fly with, but not too bad. We enjoyed having the stroller we were familiar with in the parks. The Disney strollers are hard plastic and don't recline. Also, you can't take them out of the parks, which means you can't use them while getting back to your hotel at night (or midday). Renting a double stroller from Disney is around $27 per day (that's WITH the multiple-day discount). For this trip, we're trying Orlando Stroller Rentals. We're saving about $20-$30 by going through them. I've heard great things about them, and to me, it's the best of both worlds. The company delivers the stroller to your hotel, and you keep it with you the entire length of your stay. You simply leave it at your hotel when you check out. You don't have to fly with it, and you get a clean, top-of-the-line, padded, reclining stroller while you're in the parks. We've never done this before, so I'll give a report once we're home.
Consult Pinterest and blogs for packing lists, tips from other moms, and more. You'll find lots of resources and blog posts from moms who share their experiences. You can start here at my Disney board, but keep clicking and you'll find tons. If you really want to grab a snack and hole up for hours, I write with a group of Disney bloggers called the Magical Blogorail. Each month we blog about different topics. Click here for a list of topics we've written about - this is a GREAT resource with everything in one place!
I know this was a LOT of info, and planning can be very overwhelming, but I promise the planning is the most intensive part. If you do your work ahead of time, your vacation will be wonderful. You want to take your vacation; you don't want your vacation taking YOU. Of course flexibility is key, and anticipating a few hiccups is to be expected. I suggest getting a big manila envelope to keep everything together. I have our park tickets, printed touring plans, daily notes* in my envelope.
*"Daily Notes" is my own little creation. I simply go day by day and type out the details of the day. Here's an example:
Tuesday, January **th - Magic Kingdom
HOURS: 9:00am - 8:00pm
LUNCH: Columbia Harbor House (Opens at 11:00am)
DINNER: 5:45pm, Be Our Guest Table Service
Mom takes kids back to hotel for a nap at 1:15pm. Rest until 4:30pm or so, then leave the hotel at 4:45pm to come back to Magic Kingdom for dinner reservation at 5:45pm.
All I'm doing is creating a quick cheat sheet with everything in one place. It helps me remember what I thought through and decided when I was planning at home. When you're in the parks it can sometimes be hard to remember what you're supposed to be doing, so this helps. It's NOT complicated, just a very quick synopsis of each day. I print this out and stick it in my envelope. I also include hotel confirmation numbers, stroller rental info, etc.
I know this might sound crazy to some, but stop, breathe, and have fun planning your vacation. Make it a leisurely process where you do a little planning/research each night, and it won't get overwhelming. Figure out when your 180-day mark is for reservations and make that your deadline for at least knowing when you're going, which parks you'll visit on what days, and where you want to eat. You can buy your tickets, make your detailed touring plans, and figure out packing and other details after that. When you break it down and take it step by step, you can do it!