Planning a trip to Disney World is a lot like baking a birthday cake. It's a complicated process with a lot of steps. It can seem pretty overwhelming if you've never done it before. You can get pre-boxed packages to make it a little easier, but those might not fit your needs perfectly. And this is one thing you DON'T want to mess up.
Consider this post is the first page in my Disney cookbook. It's an easy-to-follow, step-by-step, start-to-finish, comprehensive guide to planning a trip to Disney World. You've got this.
1. Decide WHEN you are going
For a lot of people, this isn't a step you need to worry about. You're planning a trip for your kid's spring break, your anniversary, or the only week you could get off work! For those with a bit more flexibility in their schedules, this is where you should start.
The best method to picking a weekend is to look at special Disney events/festivals and crowd calendars. Find the happy medium that's right for you. If you HATE crowds and lines, find a slow week full of low crowds. If you LOVE the winter holidays, plan for a trip later in the year to take advantage of Christmas decorations and events in the Magic Kingdom.
I don't have the time or resources to create my own crowd calendar, but I have a few favorites that I like to check before I go.
WDW Prep School (not mobile friendly) fully comprehensive, park-specific crowd levels. Typically very accurate.
Undercover Tourist (mobile friendly) less comprehensive, has recommended parks for each day. Includes Universal too!
Disney Tourist Blog (mobile friendly) more overarching month-to-month pros and cons.
There are many, many more out there. I recommend googling "Disney World Crowd Calendar" if none of these provided what you want.
2. Decide WHERE to stay
The biggest choice you'll have to make in this step is deciding whether or not to stay "on property". Staying on property means staying in a Disney-owned hotel; staying off property means staying somewhere owned by an outside group.
On Property Favorites:
Disney's Polynesian Village Resort: (Deluxe) Polynesian themed resort, monorail access to the Magic Kingdom
Disney's Port Orleans- French Quarter: (Moderate) New Orleans themed resort, a cult favorite of Disney fans old and new
Disney's Art of Animation Resort: (Value) Classic Disney Animation themed resort, the newest of the value resorts
Off Property Favorites
Four Seasons Resort Orlando: (Deluxe) a Disney-affiliated hotel located in their luxury home community. AMAZING pool amenities and feels much more luxurious than any Disney hotel.
Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek: (Moderate) located near Disney Springs. Fun lobby bar called "MYTH"
Towneplace Suites Flamingo Crossing: (Value) Extended Stay hotel with in-unit kitchens and amenities. Disney Fireworks view from some rooms and from parking lot.
If you are planning to visit Universal Orlando while in Central Florida, I would recommend looking into their hotels too.
3. Which Parks? Which Days?
I like to stick to a one park per day plan. That way, you don't have to pay for a park hopper upgrade when buying tickets. Plus, every park (yes, even Hollywood Studios), has enough to do to fill a whole day.
To decide the order, I revisit the crowd calendar (mentioned in more depth in step one) to see what parks are the least busy on each day. I also try to start making some dining reservations. If I really want to eat at Tiffins (in Animal Kingdom), but can only get a reservation on the third day of my trip, then I know I should spend my third day in Animal Kingdom. We'll discuss more on restaurants in Step 4.
Another deciding factor is Extra Magic Hours (denoted on the crowd calendar). If you are staying on property and want to go for EMH, you should plan to spend the day in the park that is offering them. If you are not staying on property, you should avoid the parks offering EMH on any given day. They are typically more crowded than the other parks.
Beyond that, you can stretch your time in each park based on how long you are staying.
Here are my recommendations based on length of your trip
1 day: Magic Kingdom
2 days: Magic Kingdom and Epcot
3 days: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios
4 days: 1 day in each park
5 days: Magic Kingdom (2), Epcot, Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom
6 days: Magic Kingdom (2), Epcot (2), Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom
Past 6 days, you may want to look into an annual pass. Then you can park hop and spend as much time as you like in each park.
I generally like to plan one "sit down" restaurant per day, either in the park I am visiting that day, in a hotel, or in Disney Springs (formerly "Downtown Disney"). You can book these restaurants 180 days in advance of your trip. There are a ton of great options no matter where you go, but these are a few of my favorites:
Be Our Guest (French)
Tony's Town Square (Italian)
Cinderella's Royal Table (American, Meet the Princesses Meal)
Via Napoli (Italian)
Akershus (Buffet Style, Meet the Princesses Meal)
Garden Grill (Family Style, Meet Characters Meal)
Brown Derby (American)
'Ohana (Polynesian, Meet Characters Meal)
Sanaa (African, Safari View)
Victoria & Albert's (Upscale Dining, Very $$$)
California Grill (American, Magic Kingdom View)
Chef Mickey's (American, Meet Characters Meal)
The Boathouse (American)
The Edison (American)
Morimoto Asia (Asian)
For all other meals/snacks I do a "quick service" restaurant. They're scattered all around the parks. For the most part, I find these to be overpriced and just "okay" quality. Feel free to pack a lunch into the parks if you would prefer.
Pinocchio Village Haus (Pizza)
Sleepy Hollow Refreshments (Waffle Sandwiches)
Cosmic Ray's Starlight Cafe (Burgers)
Aloha Isle (Snack, Dole Whip)
Confectionary (Snack, Desserts)
Festival Booths (more on this in Step 6)
Electric Umbrella (Classic American)
BaseLine Tap House (Burgers and Beer)
PizzeRizzo (Pizza, only open seasonally)
Satu'li Canteen (Avant Garde)
My last (and favorite) step for the perfect Disney World trip is FastPasses. This is a system in which you can show up to a specific ride at a specific time (that you choose) and get to skip the lines! I like to pick these for rides that otherwise command very long lines or rides that I want to make sure I hit on every trip. Some parks have "tier restrictions" so you can't get fast passes for all the big ticket rides in one day.
You get 3 each day. After you have used the first 3, you can book a 4th. After the 4th, you can book a 5th. And so on. The first 3 passes must all be in the same park. After that, you can hop to a different park if you so choose (and have parkhopper tickets).
If you are staying on property, you can book these for your whole trip 60 days from your check-in date. If you are staying off property, you can book these 30 days before your park day.
Here's a list of my favorites, but you can adjust these based on the interests/height restrictions of everyone in your party. If traveling with smaller children, you should also look into the rider switch service.
Big Thunder Mountain (Rollercoaster)
Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin (Target Shooting)
Haunted Mansion (Slow Moving)
Peter Pan's Flight (Slow-Moving)
Pirates of the Caribbean (Slow-Moving, Water)
Seven Dwarves Mine Train (Rollercoaster)
Space Mountain (Rollercoaster)
Frozen Ever After (Slow-Moving, Water)
Mission Space (Simulator, Very Intense)
Test Track (Rollercoaster)
Alien Swirling Saucers (Spinning)
Rock N' Rollercoaster (Rollercoaster, Intense)
Slinky Dog Dash (Rollercoaster)
Star Tours (Simulator)
Tower of Terror (Drop Ride)
Toy Story Midway Mania (Simulator, Target Shooting)
Avatar Flight of Passage (Simulator, Intense)
Expedition Everest (Rollercoaster)
Kali River Rapids (Rapids, Water)
Na'vi River Journey (Slow-Moving, Water)
6. Special Disney-Only Experiences
These are what makes Disney so magical.
Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique (Prince/Princess, Ages 3-12)
Pirate League (Pirate/Mermaid, Ages 3+)
Jedi Training Academy (Jedi, Ages 4-12)
International Festival of the Arts (Mid January - February)
International Flower and Garden Festival (March - June)
International Food and Wine Festival (Late August - Mid November)
International Festival of the Holidays (Late November - Late December)
Extra Ticketed Events:
Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party (Late August - Halloween)
Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party (November - Christmas)
7. Disney Add-Ons
Disney Memory Maker: Get all of your pictures from around the parks, with characters, and off rides all stored in one place.
Disney Dining Plan: Available to those staying on property. You pay in advance for food options each day. These are expensive and almost never worth it.
Congrats to those of you who made it all the way through! Hopefully this helps you plan your next trip to the "Happiest Place On Earth" and makes the stress of planning a little bit more magical. If you have tried any of these, learned anything new, or think I left something out, let me know in the comments! Thanks for reading and don’t forget to escape for a minute to fly south.