Today I’m sharing a little bit about our planning process. For purposes of this post, I’m specifically considering a trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
If you consult your buddy Google you can find (roughly) one bazillion posts/articles about planning for Disney. Most of these assume (a) it’s your very first trip and/or (b) it’s likely going to be your only trip.
This is totally understandable given the expense involved and the fact that most people don’t live close enough to Disney to do more than that.
However, as Florida residents with annual passes and the ability to travel there frequently, we tend to visit more than most. So, we pretty much have the whole planning thing down. Here’s what we do:
1. Chose Dates
This is at the top for us because of Hubby’s current job and schedule. We can only plan for times he is reasonably able to be away from his other wife (aka, the ship) for a few days. And although it hasn’t happened (yet), we always remain aware of the possibility that Something Could Happen and he will be unable to leave. Just par for the course with this particular tour.
In spite of this, we usually try to reserve dates three to four months out anyway, knowing we could change them as needed. (This would be a lot more difficult to do if we were flying instead of driving.)
Also, the longest trip we’ve done since he reported to the ship has been four nights. I personally love a long, leisurely Disney trip of at least seven to eight days—enough time to visit each of the main parks twice—but alas, that’s not where we are right now. Many of our visits have been just two nights.
2. Choose Where To Stay
We always stay at a Disney resort. There are many advantages to this—too many to overwhelm this post with—but trust me.
We are Disney Vacation Club members, so this somewhat narrows down our choices for us. (Although, as a family of five, our choices were already limited to larger rooms and suites; most rooms are designed for a maximum of four people.)
Of course we love to look forward to staying someplace new. However, that’s not always an option. We have found that while there are definitely times of the year that the parks are not as crowded, DVC rooms book up early year-round. So sometimes we get what we get. Which is fine, because the resorts all rock in their own unique way.
(For the record, even though it’s the farthest from the majority of the action—which brings its own challenges—our favorite is Animal Kingdom Lodge.)
3. Decide What Parks To Visit (and When)
If our visit is going to be at least four days, we aim to visit each of the four main parks once. The Agents aren’t particularly interested in the water parks, and Downtown Disney is more of a maybe-hit-it-for-a-few-hours-one-evening kind of venue for us right now. So we focus on the big four: Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, and Epcot.
However, given that many of our visits last fewer than four full days, we usually have to prioritize what parks to go to on a particular trip. Park hopping is not really an option for us; we prefer to choose one a day and stick with it. We also don’t typically leave the park for a break or a nap; we wait until we are ready to call it a day.
Unless there is a compelling reason to plan differently, we typically start with whatever park we haven’t been to in the longest. If I can’t remember, I just ask Agent E, because she never forgets anything. Especially when it’s Disney-related.
4. Make Dining Reservations
Once we know what park we will be in on what day, we make meal reservations. We typically stick with lunch or dinner, because we’re not huge morning people and don’t like to feel rushed to get to the parks super early for a breakfast reservation.
We (almost) always get the dining plan. While it’s possible to make reservations 180 days out, we rarely make plans that far in advance and yet still usually get our first choices. In fact, we’ve scheduled meals as close as one week out, and although we had to compromise a bit on time (like a 3:45 dinner or a 2:00 lunch) we were still able to make it work.
5. Plan Specific Activities and Make FP+ Choices
Now that we have a park-of-the-day and a meal time to anchor us, we think about what we’d like to do as far as shows, rides, and other attractions. We try to underplan. This doesn’t always work, because we have a tendency to get a teensy bit carried away, but this is the goal.
Because we make a few trips a year, we have the “luxury” of time, and therefore can easily prioritize. We know what shows are worth it and what can be skipped. We know what rides are must-do and what rides are not worth the wait. We know that if we miss something, it will still be there next time.
Regardless, we like to have a general idea of what we’d like to do on each day. Character greetings, a few rides, and at least one show in each park usually make the list. We often skip parades; we don’t want to waste time by trying to get there early to get a good view, and the Agents are too small to see over the crowds if we get there late.
One relatively new option is Fast Pass + . . . a way to score fast passes for popular (read: long wait) rides and entertainment before you even set foot in the park.
Right now it’s still in the roll-out stages, but we were actually “picked” to be part of the testing phase. It’s used in combination with the Magic Bands, which are bracelets you wear that serve as your hotel key, park ticket, meal payment, and fast pass. We made our first trip using these in January, and while they are probably worthy of a post of their own, let me just say they are ridiculously cool.
6. Pack Based on the Weather
I cannot stress enough how important it is to check the weather forecast for Orlando before you pack. Every trip, we see clear evidence of folks who assumed Florida = Sunny + Pleasant and skipped this crucial step.
We have personally visited Walt Disney World in the middle of a serious spring cold snap, where we needed jackets and gloves (March 2013), during a tropical storm, where we needed rain jackets every day as well as extra socks/shoes for everyone because everything got completely soaked daily (June 2012), and during an intensely humid October (2009) with record-breaking high temperatures.
Of course, seeing how different people dress for the weather can be kind of humorous, too . . . like one day on our last trip when it dipped into the forties, and you would see all the northerners walking around in shorts (because it felt “not bad” to them), the locals wearing jeans and sweaters (probably freezing still), and the European visitors dressed in chic winter coats and scarves (and looking better than all of us).
Lesson learned: Don’t assume anything about Florida weather!
I should add that all of these are done with significant Agent input (although not as much on the dates, since that’s mostly driven by Hubby’s schedule). Agent E loves to peruse the Walt Disney World website and get ideas, check times, and plot out options, because, well, that’s what she does.