I’ve planned international trips, road trips, and national park trips but nothing has felt as complicated as planning our first time at Disney World! Walt Disney World blogs are an entire niche of their own and I felt like I kept running into posts that assumed a level of knowledge that I didn’t have (yet!). So, now that we went and are planning our trip back, I thought I’d lay out the post I needed to read in case it can help someone else!
While you’re here, check out this post too!
- Our itinerary & favorites – 5 day Walt Disney World visit in late February
Pin this post about important tips for planning your first Disney World trip with this link or collage photo:
First, keep reminding yourself that Walt Disney World is huge. There are 4 main parks, 2 water parks, 22 hotels, and a “downtown” called Disney Springs. There is literally no way to “see it all” so eliminate that as a goal if that’s how you typically travel! Each park has things to walk around and do/see in addition to a mix of rides, shows to sit down and watch in a theater, and outside shows. There are lots of Disney abbreviations used online, I try to keep them to a minimum but for your reference as you dive into planning, here is a rundown of the most common ones.
Also remember that no one planning style is going to be the same! Some people literally plan out every 15 minute sector. Some people prefer to fly by the seat of their pants. At a minimum, I think everyone should plan for fast passes (explained more below) and if you want to do any sit down meals, plan for those. We personally had a loose plan because I didn’t want to feel like we had to be somewhere or have a checklist of what to get done! I made this list assuming you’re starting with a rough budget expectation, but contacting a travel agent or using the Disney website to get an estimate for hotel + ticket costs is simple.
Lastly, I don’t cover any special needs like allergies or disabilities but know that WDW has a reputation for being extremely accommodating. Check out their page and contact them directly to make the trip as successful as possible!
Order of decisions that we had to make & what I wished I’d known when planning for our first time at Disney World:
1. Should you work with a travel agent or not?
Most Disney travel agents are free to use and can help you decide what hotel to stay at, help book things for you, and add discounts if they pop up after you’ve booked. Lots of people swear by them! It doesn’t hurt to get in touch with one but for our first visit we worked with a travel agent and I wasn’t thrilled with the experience. We will try with a new person for our next visit, there isn’t a ton to lose but definitely don’t take their word for anything when it comes to recommendations, do your own research alongside it!
Advantages to using a TA:
- It’s free help narrowing down decisions or getting clearcut answers on logistical questions.
- Each agent offers different things but they will often book fast passes for you, monitor for discounts that pop up after you’ve booked and re-apply them, and generally answer your questions.
- If they do a good job, it’s easier on you.
Disadvantages to using a TA:
- No one is as invested in you having a good time as you. Our first TA booked our fast passes but didn’t double check all the height requirements, so we wasted 2 on rides my youngest couldn’t even ride, because I assumed she would consider it.
- They may present their opinions as facts when they aren’t. Their personal biases/experiences may be a hindrance as often as they’re helpful, they are human too!
- If they make a mistake with booking anything it can be double the hassle for you to unravel. Our TA booked a stroller I never asked for, and it took literal months and significant chunks of my time to get the final, full refund.
Either way, I recommend joining some Disney planning groups on Facebook if you use the site, like this one, and lurk, use the search bar, or post to ask questions. I think the more specific the question the more answers you’ll get; a zillion people saying “Help! I want to go! What should I do!” don’t get much input since they clearly haven’t done any reading on their own.
2. When should you go?
This is more of an art than a science, but predicting Walt Disney World crowds is done by several different sites. We used the crowd calendar here to pick a date. Not having gone before, I didn’t have my heart set on any specific rides, but if you have something in mind be sure to check a refurbishment calendar like this one, to make sure it will be open when you visit! Also consider the weather in Orlando (temperatures, predicted rain amount, etc.) and if there are any special events to avoid like the marathon or to seek out like the food & wine festival!
3. Do you want to stay on-site or off-site?
Walt Disney World is HUGE so there wherever you stay, you’re sacrificing being closer to one park over another park. Staying “on-site” in a Disney resort is more expensive but has several advantages! We chose to stay on site at one of the cheapest options (Pop Century) and were glad we did.
Advantages to staying in a Disney resort:
Within the Disney resorts, there are value, moderate, and deluxe tiers at different price points and amenities.
- You can ride the free buses to the parks – less hassle, don’t have to pay for parking
- There is free transportation from the Orlando International Airport to on-site hotels
- You get to book FPs aka fast passes (this allows you to bypass long lines on rides) and ADRs aka advance dining reservations (virtually required for any sit down restaurant) early
- Any items bought in the store can be sent back to your room
- 1 park each day has “extra magic hours” – time either early or late in the day that only guests staying at a resort can utilize
- You can use your magic band (a little rubber bracelet) the entire time to unlock your hotel, get your ride fast passes, and pay for everything
- Can use the dining plan, if you want to
- Each resort has a little playground, pool, arcade, convenience shop, restaurant, laundry, and planned daily activities
Advantages to staying offsite:
- Usually a lot cheaper for a lot more space
- Free parking for your stay (if you use a car, you pay for parking at the Disney resorts and at the parks)
- If you pick a space with a kitchen, you can cook meals
4. Do you want to opt in or out of the dining plan?
The Disney Dining Plan is an optional feature for guests who stay on site. You are prepaying for a set amount of credits that can then be used for snacks and meals while you’re in the park. We did not use the DDP because I didn’t like the idea of feeling like we “had” to use up credits or planning our days around meals. A few things to consider:
- You can use a dining plan calculator to see if it makes financial sense based on your restaurant plans. This assumes you’ve already researched restaurant options when it calculates.
- You still need to budget for tips on the full bill amount
- Using the DPP does allow you to budget more clearly since your costs are preset
5. How many days do you want to visit the parks, which parks, and park hopper vs. not?
There are four main parks at WDW – Hollywood Studios, Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, & Epcot Studios. There is a mix of characters and movies at each one, so if you don’t want to visit all of them I’d recommend reading a list of what is at each one to help you decide. When you’re roughly sketching out when and where you want to go, be sure to check each park’s scheduled hours.
Regular tickets allow you to go to 1 park that day whereas park hopper tickets let you bounce around. Keep in mind that transportation between the parks will eat time up! You can upgrade to park hopper tickets in the middle of your trip but it is the same price whether you book the first day or the last day. Consider that many people also schedule at least one rest day where they can recover and use their resort’s amenities.
6. How detailed you want to plan out your days?
As I said in the beginning of this post, some people have a color coded spreadsheet and some people just go with the flow, checking their My Disney Experience App for what’s available or what’s next. Be sure to check in with other folks you’re traveling with so you’re on the same page before you make this decision! Take into consideration whether you want to attempt and “rope drop” (basically showing up before open so you can get in line first. we didn’t do this but you can get a better idea here).
Two things I had no idea before we went are that people start showing up way before the scheduled open time for the day and also for the fireworks shows! We ended up staking out a spot over an hour before the beginning and getting dinner to take back, which worked great.
7. Do you want to fly or drive?
Do the math and decide if you’d rather fly or drive to get to the park! If you’re staying on site, you can get free transport to the parks and easily use their shuttles the entire time. If you drive, remember that you will pay for parking at the resorts and the parks.
There are also Uber drivers in the area as another option to keep in mind. If you’re flying, be sure to plan for some leeway in case of flight delays or cancellations.
8. If I wanted to book any dining reservations (also known as ADRs)
When it comes to eating meals in the parks, there are three main category options: quick service ($, fast food style), sit down ($$, buffet or waiter at your table), and character ($$$, buffet or water at your table + costumed character visits). Sit down & character meals are booked way in advance! Off site or on site, these can be booked 180 days away from the reservation date. If you stay on site, you can book for your entire trip 180 days out from your arrival date, giving you a leg up on other visitors.
Most ADRS are are easy to cancel up until a certain point (read the fine print before you book, depends on the location) so people constantly juggle them around as their schedules change. If you have a specific day or restaurant in mind, you can use Mouse Dining to alert you when an opening pops up, but act quickly!
There is a wealth of knowledge online about menus, pictures of meals, reviews of different character experience, etc. so I’ll simply note that you should keep in mind what park you’re at for each day; the meals are all over the place at resorts and in parks so you want to be aware if it’s going to take 2 hours of transport time to get to dinner. Also, we scoffed a little at paying so much for the character meals and only did one but after waiting in line for autographs the regular way which took a long time and was boring, definitely don’t discount the advantage to personalized meet and greets.
We typically did breakfast a la carte/en route to the parks, and then used the quick service mobile ordering option when we got hungry to see what was available. You order on your phone, walk up, and walk off with your food! It was great.
9. What do you want to book for fast passes?
A fast pass gives you a 1 hour window to arrive at a ride/show and wait in a shorter line. You can book 3 a day that all have to be at the same park and once you’ve used those, you can book more 1 at a time at any park. This was extremely overwhelming to choose without having ever been as a kid! If you’re staying on site, you book these 30 days out and if you’re offsite you book them 60 days out.
Two main considerations are height restrictions and intensity. You can find a full list of attraction with height details, separated by park, on the Disney Tourist Blog here. After you’ve weeded out what they can’t even qualify for, I’d highly recommending watching youtube videos of any rides before you choose them. We had an extremely stressful afternoon when a ride (Flights of Passage in Pandora!)’s introduction really freaked out our sensitive 6 year old, and it would’ve been averted if we’d watched a video ahead of time and steered clear.
Fast passes can be changed and cancelled just like ADRs, however the more popular rides are very hard to come by, so prioritize if you have your heart set on something but keep checking if not. Also know that they have a “rider switch” program so if you only have 1 kiddo who can do a ride but both adults do, you don’t have to wait in the same long line twice (more details here).
10. Do you want to do the memory maker photo plan?
The Memory Maker is a plan that gives you a bunch of professionally taken photos! If you pre-purchase it, it is cheaper, or you can see the photos taken after and buy at a higher price. They take photos on some rides, with some characters, and throughout the parks. See more details here – keep in mind that you may have to wait in line for the photographer, quality may vary, but also that it is a fun way to get whole family pictures! Also know that photopass photographers will take photos with your own phone for free.
11. If you want to do any special add-on activities?
Halfway through our trip, I found out some of these special activities were even an option! They all cost extra of course, but take some time to browse options like behind the scenes tours, princess makeovers, pirate makeovers, dessert cruises, and more. It looks like you can see all of them in two places – one for the special events that involve food and one for the special events that are solely activities.
Another special activity might be participating in one of the early or after hours events. Not to be confused with “early magic hours” which are free for on-site guests, these programs cost extra money and often include free snacks and much shorter lines for certain rides. These can be found on the regular hour schedule for your visit’s dates.
12. What should you prepare and pack?
Often in the Disney planning groups people list a gigantic emergency kit with first aid, worst case scenario spares, etc. and I honestly think it is overkill. I *love* feeling prepared and am the first one with all of the things when we’re out on a trail or in a national park but in my opinion, WDW is the best place on the planet to be unprepared for things like that. Stores are literally everywhere with a spare umbrella, aspirin, etc. and even if it is a little pricier than from back home, I think you come out ahead from instead buying everything proactively.
Keep in mind there is a huge rental market for all sorts of things in the area. We didn’t do a stroller but that is another big decision. Everyone swears up and down kids 8 & under require one but we do a lot of hiking and my 4 & 6 year old had no problem walking the 8-10 miles a day we clocked in, though I did bring a preschool sized Kinderpack carrier that we used for the fireworks show!
A few random things I was glad we knew or wished we had:
- Bring a reusable water bottle! Most of the restaurants charge separately for a drink (for adult meals, kids always seemed to be included) but have free water refills. This was filtered water, not the Florida tap water that tastes like garbage.
- Download the My Disney Experience app ahead of time, this has a map and organizes all your fast passes, etc. I’d recommend packing an extra phone battery pack since you might be there all day, we use this one.
- Some of the basics: Comfortable shoes. sunscreen (this one rocks), hand sanitizer (wipes and/or spray). No bug spray is needed, they spray for pests and we didn’t see a single one.
- Autograph books & permanent markers if you plan to do them! We did and I kinda wished we hadn’t, but we did use this pretty hardcover book so it at least has some longterm value for them.
- Food! They let you bring food into the parks so plan on ordering to your room or bringing in snacks if you’re cheap like me. Obviously Disney has fantastic snacks, but I wanted to balance their sugar intake and my wallet with some wholesome staples.
- Pins for pin trading if you decide to partake. We didn’t do this, but apparently it is a big thing, you can read more about it here.
- We did bring our proper raincoats instead of throw away ponchos that don’t work and clog up the landfills, and I was glad for them! We also wore mainly quick dry athletic clothes for easier washing and rain shower surviving.
Wow was this a novel or what! I hope that it lays things out clearly for people who are just starting out with no background knowledge. I have zero intent of becoming a Disney expert but like I said, this is the primer post I needed when we first dove in! We were skeptical but had a great time and I hope you do too.