You know the saying… “I’m going to DISNEY WORLD!!” That’s great! You’ve take the first step simply by deciding to visit The Most Magical Place On Earth. But… now what?
Walt Disney World is comprised of four theme parks, a shopping and dining district, two water parks, and over 25 Resort hotels... and that’s just scratching the surface! Planning a Walt Disney World vacation can be a very complex — and potentially stressful — endeavor. (P.S. It’s also very worthwhile!) There are a LOT of decisions to make — and practically a whole new Disney language to learn — before you can enjoy all that Disney magic.
And that’s why we’re here to help with our Ultimate Guide to Planning a Walt Disney World Vacation!
1. The Basics
Sure, you’ve probably seen oodles of pictures of Cinderella Castle in Magic Kingdom. But Walt Disney World is made up of 4 theme parks: Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
There is also an entertainment, shopping, and dining district called Disney Springs that is full of stores, fantastic restaurants, and more for you to enjoy.
Not to mention mini-golf and world class golf courses, and MUCH more on Walt Disney World property. There’s a LOT to see and do… and this fall that will be truer than EVER, as Walt Disney World will celebrate its 50th Anniversary for 18 MONTHS across the Resort, starting on October 1, 2021!
There are a LOT of different Disney-owned/run hotels to stay at on Walt Disney World property. There are also some hotels that are technically on Walt Disney World property but are not owned/run by Disney, like the Four Seasons Orlando or the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin. And there are hotels that are off of Walt Disney World property, but very close by.
With a LOT of options, it can be overwhelming to figure out which is the right choice for your family. There are three classes of hotels owned by Disney — Value, Moderate, and Deluxe — ranging from the less expensive Value resorts all the way up to posh Deluxe resorts will all the amenities you could want. With so much to chose from, we recommend you check out our video on the best hotels for visits this year below!
Another thing you’ll need to think about is how you’re going to get from Orlando International Airport (MCO) or any airport nearby (if you’re flying into Orlando) to your hotel. Disney currently has a FREE transportation service called Disney’s Magical Express which takes guests and their luggage to and from Orlando International Airport to their Disney hotel.
But, this service will be discontinued as of January 1, 2022, so you’ll need to arrange for other transportation from the airport to Disney World. (Just one option we know of is the new Mears Connect service on the way.) Another consideration to make if you plan to drive or rent a car from the airport is parking. Just keep in mind that Disney does charge a parking fee if you bring your car and park it at one of their hotels BUT Disney-owned resort guests get complimentary parking at the theme parks.
Finally, before you book your trip, you’ll want to check and see if there are any special deals or discounts being offered on Disney World hotel stays.
Sometimes, you may be able to score the hotel of your dreams for less through these deals.
Finally, a lot of people make some rookie mistakes planning their first Disney World trip. Make sure YOU don’t make those same mistakes by reading our post about some of the mistakes people make when booking a Disney World hotel.
3. Theme Park Admission
Okay, so you’ve decided what hotel you want to stay at, but what about the theme parks? You’ll need to get tickets to enter the theme parks. But, in Disney World, not all days are created equal when it comes to theme park admission prices. Essentially, Disney uses a calendar system for its prices that is based on demand. So, “peak” days — holidays and days that Disney expects the park to be busier — will be priced at a higher cost.
If you go during a slower period, when the demand isn’t as high, the tickets will be lower in terms of cost. Prices can jump up or down depending on when you’d like to visit, so scouting out a slower time could mean big savings.
Also, you’ll want to keep in mind that park tickets have an expiration date, even though that wasn’t always the case. So, while your parents might have tickets from the ’90s that are still totally good, the tickets you buy tomorrow will have a set expiration date. You’ll want to mark that down in your calendar and make sure you get the full use out of that ticket before it expires.
You can get tickets that give you access to 1 park per day, or you can opt for a ticket with the Park Hopper option. With the Park Hopper option, you’ll be able to HOP between all 4 Disney World theme parks once Park Hopper hours begin each day. Park Hopper DOES add a fairly significant cost to your tickets, but if you’re looking to jump around to different parks for meals or are trying to do it all in just a few days, it might well be worth the added cost.
One important thing to keep in mind: if you don’t get a ticket with the Park Hopper option at first, and later you decide you want it, that is fine. You can always add it on later, once you’re in Disney World, and you can even add it to your tickets in the middle of your trip. But, Disney will charge you for adding the Park Hopper for the full length of your trip (meaning that even if you add on the Park Hopping on day 3 of 5, you’ll be charged Park Hopping for the full 5 days of your trip, not just your remaining days). So, if you are going to add it on during your trip, you’ll want to add it on early so you can take full advantage of it. If you’re going to pay for it, you might as well get to use it to the fullest!
But, also keep in mind that you typically cannot remove a Park Hopper option from a ticket once you’ve bought it. Our advice? Really put some thought into if you actually NEED the Park Hopping ability before you decide to pay for it, but don’t wait until you’re too late into your actual trip. It may make sense for your group to build in rest time back at your Resort during the day instead of go-go-going to make the most of Hopping. Sometimes, less is more… and sometimes you may want to pack in as much as you can. Think about your family’s wants AND needs before tacking on the expense, and — if you choose to do so — be sure you make the most of it!
Also, if you are interested in the water parks or some other activities, you can also get Park Hopper tickets that have a Water Parks and Sports option and a Park Hopper Plus option that will allow you to do more. And, if you’re really planning to commit, you can look into getting a Disney World Annual Pass. New Annual Passes are not being sold at the moment, though.
Just like the hotels, Disney often runs a variety of discounts and deals on its tickets that you’ll want to look into. Right now, there’s even a deal going on that will let you get 2 days of FREE park tickets.
Okay, so you’ve picked your hotel and you know what type of tickets you want to buy — so what do you do in terms of booking? Well, you can book the tickets on their own and your hotel room separately. Or, you can book a Vacation Package that includes both.
You can also book a package that includes hotel, tickets, and the Disney Dining Plan, if it’s available. The Dining Plan allows you to pre-pay for your food. You’re then given a certain number of “credits” that you can use throughout your trip for meals and snacks. Currently, the Dining Plan is not available. If and when it returns, this is something to keep in mind if you like to feel like your trip expenses are mostly all covered before you even arrive.
What combination of bookings is best for you? You’ll have to price out the discounts on hotels, tickets, and combined packages to find out. Often many discounts will require you to book a specific package, so check the fine print for any deals you’re eyeing.
Truly, we’ve only just started this guide and maybe you’re already coming to the realization that planning a Disney World vacation can be A LOT. Our recommendation? You might want to think about reaching out to a travel agent. We specifically recommend the awesome folks over at Small World Vacations!
The people over at Small World Vacations know about ALL of the discounts, and they stay up to date on new discounts that could be applied to your vacation to help you save some serious cash. They can give you personalized advice and really help make your vacation planning stress-free. Oh, and did we mention that their services are TOTALLY FREE?! That’s right. You won’t pay a dime extra than what you normally would pay to book your vacation on your own. In fact, you could SAVE money working with a travel agent. Their job is to look out for you. (We’ve scored some great deals this way!)
We’ve got all the contact information for Small World Vacations at the bottom of this page and you can fill out their form to get started right here!
5. Disney Dining Plan
We touched on it briefly above, but the Disney Dining Plan is a way to pay for your Disney World meals in advance. Plans are pre-purchased and added onto a Disney Vacation Package (i.e. you must be staying through a Vacation Package at a Disney owned-and-operated hotel, and have purchased at least one ticket per person). With the Dining Plan, all you have to do when you get to Disney World is head to a restaurant on the list, eat, and scan your MagicBand, Key to the World card, or Disney MagicMobile feature on your smartphone to “pay.”
The credits for the meal (or snacks) for each person will be deducted from your total allotment. Easy peasy. Note that while you don’t pay while you’re at the restaurant (unless you order extras not covered like additional drinks or appetizers), gratuity is not included on table-service meals. There are a variety of different plans that are typically available that give you more or less food. The plans even include alcohol, if you’re able to partake. You’ll likely find a plan that would fit your family’s dining preferences. Right now, the Dining Plan is not available though and it has not yet become available for future bookings, so just keep that in mind for the time being.
6. Park Hours
One big thing you need to know about before your first Disney World trip is the park hours. Disney World theme parks do not open and close at the same time as one another, and the hours for each theme park can vary by day. It’s important that you know those hours when you plan your trip so you can try to get the most out of every single day you have there.
Park hours can also change ahead of your trip or even DURING your trip! You’ll want to keep an eye on those park hours, ESPECIALLY once you’re there, and watch for updates from us here at DFB.
7. Disney World Park Pass Reservations
When the Disney World theme parks reopened after the pandemic closures, they introduced the Park Pass system. The way that things work now is like this: let’s say you want to go to Magic Kingdom on Friday. First, you need a valid ticket to visit Magic Kingdom on that Friday. But, in addition to that, you also need a required Park Pass theme park reservation for Friday for Magic Kingdom. Every person in your party will also need a ticket and Park Pass as well.
But, Park Passes can fill up, especially at busier times. You’ll be able to take a look at the Disney World Park Pass calendar to see what days are green (meaning there is full availability at all 4 parks), yellow (meaning 1 or more parks are already full), or gray (meaning there are no Park Passes available at any of the parks). Park Pass availability can vary depending on whether you are an Annual Passholder, Disney World hotel guest, or a guest with regular theme park tickets. You can only make 1 Park Pass reservation per day. That is the only park you will be allowed to visit for that day, unless you have added Park Hopper on your tickets (which, again, you’ll have to wait until after 2PM to do each day!).
Again, availability for Park Passes can change a LOT. Sometimes days fill up, and then later more passes become available. Our advice? Get your Park Pass reservations EARLY. If you can’t get a reservation for a specific park that you want, book another one for the time being so at least you have something. You can always check later to see if more availability opens up. And if passes for the park you originally wanted become available, then you can cancel your existing Park Pass and make a new one.
If you’re staying at a Disney World owned/operated hotel, one of the best perks is FREE transportation from the hotels to the parks and back. Depending on the hotel you’re staying at, different transportation options will be available. Some hotels have buses to the parks…
…while others have boats…
…or access to the Disney Skyliner…
…or monorails, or a combination.
Some hotels even give you the chance to WALK to the parks.
For example, you can walk from Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, Disney’s Contemporary Resort, and (if you’re willing to trek a little bit) Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort to Magic Kingdom.
You can also drive to and from the parks. If you’re staying at a Disney Hotel, you get free parking at the parks. Otherwise, keep in mind that there is a cost per day to park at Disney World’s theme parks. If you hop to the other parks, you won’t need to pay again on the same day though — just keep that receipt! Also, parking is free at Disney Springs!
9. MagicBands and Disney MagicMobile
If you walk around Disney World you’re sure to see people with colorful bands on their wrists that look like this.
These are called MagicBands! MagicBands can do a whole bunch of stuff! If you set it up online, you can link your park tickets to your MagicBand. Then, all you’ll need to do is scan your band (rather than take your ticket out of your wallet or pocket) to get into the parks. They can also be used to open your Disney World hotel room door, scan to use your FastPass+ (when available), charge purchases to your Disney World hotel room, link PhotoPass photos, and more! It’s a mega-powerful tool right on your wrist.
MagicBands are no longer free for Disney World hotel guests, but you can still buy them and use them in the parks. Disney World hotel guests and Annual Passholders can also pre-order some MagicBands at a discount ahead of their trip, but you’re gonna have to pay a bit. If you don’t like the discounted options available, you can also just buy a MagicBand in the parks or online. MagicBands can be extremely convenient. But, they are not required if you choose not to use them.
In fact, a new service called Disney MagicMobile is currently rolling out to Disney World guests, and it incorporates many of the features of the MagicBand and transfer them to your smartphone!
This new feature has not launched in full to all Disney guests just yet, but you can study up in the meantime and learn all there is to know about Disney MagicMobile here!
10. Great-to-Know Tech Stuff
You may want to spend part of your vacation away from the computer or technology, but in Disney World there are actually a LOT of apps and tech things you’ll want to know about and use. Here’s a quick breakdown of what you’ll need to download and know.
First, we highly recommend that you download the My Disney Experience app. You’ll be able to use this app to check park times, make FastPass+ reservations (when available), make dining reservations, check the wait times for the rides, look at park maps, and SO MUCH MORE.
You can create accounts for your family members on there, link your tickets, and link MagicBands, too.
Click here to see the steps you should take on My Disney Experience NOW before your upcoming Disney World trip.
The My Disney Experience app is packed to the brim with options to make dining in Disney World that much easier, too! For instance, Mobile Order allows you to preorder and pay for your food on your phone at many Disney World quick-service spots.
You’ll also be able to use the app to do Mobile Dine Check-in for many Disney World Table Service restaurants.
The My Disney Experience app also now lets you join Virtual Waitlists for many Disney World restaurants, if they have walk-up availability. The app will show you if the walk-up waitlist is at capacity for that restaurant already, or what the estimated walk-up wait would be.
There’s also one BIG Disney World ride that makes heavy use of the My Disney Experience app and that’s Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance.
To even get a chance to board this SUPER popular ride in Hollywood Studios, you’ll need to download the My Disney Experience app to sign up for a Boarding Group for the ride. We recommend REALLY brushing up on our how-to tips before attempting this one…
These features we’ve discussed here simply scratch the surface of options available to you via My Disney Experience, and you can learn more about everything the online tool and accompanying free app has to offer here!
If you’re looking for a way to keep the little ones entertained as you wait in line or even give the older kids (*raises hand*) something to play, the Play Disney Parks App is something you might want to download (it’s FREE!). The app is full of games and more to keep everyone busy. And it’s got special features you’ll want to use in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
OK, we mentioned FastPass+ above a bit, but what IS it exactly? Well, for one — it’s not available right now (sorry, guys). BUT, it is/was a FREE system available to all Disney World guests that allows you to skip the standard queue line and hop in a separate (much shorter) line to get onto your favorite rides quicker.
Guests are allowed to make 3 FastPass+ reservations per day. Once they use those 3, then they are able to make more — one at a time. FastPass+ reservations for the SUPER popular rides can fill up really quickly, so you’ll want to try to make those reservations as soon as you can. (Sometimes, though, FastPass+ spots can open up as your trip gets closer or even during your trip.)
You’ll make your FastPass+ reservations using My Disney Experience or at dedicated kiosks in the parks. You’ll select from the available rides and return times (with a one-hour return window). Disney will specify when you can return to that ride and skip the regular line. Then, when it’s your time to use a FastPass+, you’ll scan your MagicBand, MagicMobile, or Disney ticket and get in the FastPass+ line.
In the past, Disney-owned resort guests were able to book 60 days out from their trip while everyone else could book 30 days out. Right now, FastPass+ is not available in Disney World. But we’re on the lookout for any updates. For now, you’ll have to wait in the standby lines for any attraction you want to go on.
There are a LOT of dining options all around Disney World. There are counter service spots — meaning places where you simply order your food, pick it up, and take it to your table. There are also table service restaurants — where you will be seated, a Cast Member will take your order, and your food will be brought to you at the table.
Reservations are NOT required (nor can they be made) for counter service spots. But, Advance Dining Reservations can — and should — be made for table service spots. At many popular spots, reservations essentially become required if you want to dine there. Right now, you can make dining reservations 60 days ahead of your Disney trip.
Reservations can book up pretty quickly for some spots — particularly those popular locations. When we say “fast” we mean “gone 60 days out” type deal for big spots. So, if you’re looking to eat at Be Our Guest Restaurant, a character meal, or other popular places, you’ll want to book those as quickly as you can!
You can change or cancel your reservations later if you change your mind. But, note that some Disney reservations will charge you a cancellation fee (usually $10 per person) if you don’t cancel within a certain time period — generally 24 hours.
Table Service? Signature Restaurant? Counter Service? Character Meal? Learn about ALL of the types of Dining options in Disney World here!
Also, if you’re on a serious budget or you’ve got picky eaters in the group, you can bring food, snacks, water bottles, sodas, and more into Disney World. If you’ve got special dietary concerns or allergies, there are also several things you can do to notify Disney and help them best accommodate you. Cast Members will be happy to help in any way they can.
Wondering what the TOP Disney snacks are that you should get? Or the best restaurants you should eat at? If you’ve NEVER been, you likely won’t know what or where to find all the best food! We got you.
Click here to watch our DFB video on the top Disney World restaurants for 2021! Be sure to check out our picks for the BEST snacks in Disney World right now in our video below!
13. Rides, Fireworks, Parades, and a Bit More
There are a lot of rides in Disney World, and it’s important to know what rides are in what park so you can best plan your days. You can find Disney World maps online or in the My Disney Experience app. We think it’s a good idea for you and your family to look at these maps ahead of time and make a note of what rides are must-dos, which ones you’d like to try, and which ones you’d rather skip.
Not sure what a specific ride is even like? Is it too scary for your little one or too scary for you?? Watch videos of the rides online! There are tons of videos on YouTube that will give you a much better idea of what the ride is like. You can watch them with your family to get excited for your trip and help you narrow down your must-do list.
Some Disney World rides do have height requirements, so keep that in mind for little ones and be sure to look in advance so they aren’t disappointed when they get there. We recommend measuring your kiddo with their shoes on so you know before you go what they can and can’t do.
If someone is too short, parents can take advantage of Disney World’s Rider Switch program. This allows you to split your party so those tall enough can ride while someone stays with the person too small to ride. Then, they switch and the person who waited can ride without waiting in the full line.
Again, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance is its own unique beast in regards to gaining access to the attraction. If you want to ride it, this is the one ride you’ll want to really understand how to get a spot to ride. Be sure to check out more details on the unique Boarding Group distribution system via a Virtual Queue here.
Aside from actual moving or simulation rides, there is some wonderful entertainment all around Disney World. Right now, many of Disney’s live shows have not yet returned, but some are back up and running and others are set to come back soon. For instance, we were so happy to see Festival of the Lion King when it returned to Animal Kingdom in May of 2021!
Also, we wanted to briefly mention how to handle if someone in your party required a bit of extra assistance to ride rides on your trip. Disney does have certain services available for those with disabilities. For example, Assistive Technology Devices for guests with hearing disabilities are available at Guest Relations.
Those with disabilities can also get a Disability Access Service pass that allows them to stop by an attraction and receive a return time at which point they’ll be able to come back and be directed to an alternate entrance to get on the ride.
Also, we couldn’t get through this post without mentioning two of the things that Disney is so famous for (even though they aren’t rides) — parades and fireworks! Considering that this is your first trip to Disney World, these are the quintessential Disney things you’ll likely want to reserve some time to experience.
Parades are temporarily suspended at the moment, but we’re on the lookout for any updates. FIREWORKS, however, are on the way back to the Disney World theme parks! Starting July 1st, Magic Kingdom will present the Happily Ever After spectacular nightly once again, and guests can enjoy EPCOT Forever at EPCOT again, starting on the same date.
Happily Ever After is the slam-bang finish to light up the night at Magic Kingdom. Though they are not returning just yet, Disney’s Hollywood Studios usually presents TWO nighttime spectaculars — Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular and Fantasmic! And we’re also following the progress on Harmonious — a brand new nighttime spectacular on the way to EPCOT as part of the park’s historic transformation! EPCOT Forever is serving as an interim show in the meantime.
14. Disney Characters
You can’t currently meet or interact with characters (with a few socially distanced exceptions), but you can enjoy charming Character Cavalcades at all four Disney World theme parks — which are essentially mini, unannounced parades featuring oodles of Disney friends!
Additionally, select dining locations are offering modified Character Dining experiences, with physical distancing guidelines in place — along with plenty of opportunities for character pics and distanced selfies!
Of course, we anticipate the time when all the Character Meals will return to Disney World, and the vast array of choices may surprise you! Because Character Meals are such a great way to meet several Disney characters at once, they are a VERY popular option for guests.
Moving forward, we look forward to the return of traditional Character Meet and Greets, complete with hugs from pals like Mickey Mouse!
When these opportunities return, you’ll find Character Greetings listed in the My Disney Experience app so you can know where to find all your favorite pals!
During your trip, you’ll likely see Disney photographers taking other families’ photos. This is called PhotoPass. The photographers are scattered throughout the parks and will take your photos for FREE! So, don’t be afraid to say cheese and take those pictures! You can then link the photos to your account with your MagicBand or admission card so you can see them online later. Some photographers can even add in fun magical stuff to your photos, so be sure to ask!
If you want to download those photos you’ll either need an Annual Pass that includes free photo downloads, you’ll need to buy the Memory Maker service, or you can pay for each photo individually. Memory Maker is a service that you pay for that allows you to download all your PhotoPass photos for trips in a certain period of time.
16. Packing List
Maybe you’ve got everything booked and ready…but what do you pack?! Don’t worry — we’ve got you covered there too! Check out our DFB video below with the ULTIMATE Disney World packing list. It’s a few years old, but should still be SUPER helpful.
17. Face Masks
While face masks have been required in Disney World since the Resort reopened in the summer of 2020, as of June 15, 2021, face masks are optional for fully vaccinated guests in most areas in Disney World. Face masks, however, continue to be required for all guests — including vaccinated guests — on Disney transportation, which includes Disney buses, Monorails, and the Disney Skyliner.
Disney does not require proof of vaccination. But, Disney does note that they expect guests who are not fully vaccinated to continue wearing face masks in all indoor locations, and upon entering and throughout all attractions and transportation. The following has been provided on the Walt Disney World website:
Mask rules have changed over time, so you’ll want to be on the lookout for mask updates ahead of your trip.
17. Cast Members & ALL the Tips
One thing we really wanted to mention is that if during your Disney World trip you have a question or need assistance, don’t hesitate to ask a Cast Member for help. Cast Members are INCREDIBLE and do a fantastic job helping guests with their needs.
Need more tips and tricks to help plan your FIRST trip? We’ve got ’em right here! Click here to see 6 things most first time visitors get WRONG at Disney World, so you can prevent yourself from getting these things wrong during your first trip.
Want a month-by-month planning guide to your Disney World vacation? We’ve got that here, too!
Want to make sure you walk away from your first trip with as few regrets as possible? Click here to see some of our readers’ 10 BIGGEST regrets in Disney World so you don’t experience the same things.
18. The DFB Guide
Want a BIG guide to all things Disney FOOD related? Well, lucky you — we got you covered there, too! (What can we say. We like you and want you to have the BEST time ever!) You might want to check out our DFB Guide to Walt Disney World Dining!