By: Jennifer Retzlaff
After visiting Disney multiple times in the last few years, I have come to learn that planning is essential. I realize that planning isn’t up everyone’s ally and many like to “wing it” when they are on vacation, but I have come to love the planning of the Disney trip just as much as the trip itself. When my daughter turned four, we took our family on the Disney vacation of her (okay really my) dreams and I truly believe that it turned out so well because of the planning I did. Two years later, I am busy once again planning another Disney vacation although this one will be a very different trip. My husband and I will be heading to Disney for our 10 year anniversary without kids. As you begin your Disney planning, I hope these five quick tips will help you start making your trip as magical as possible.
My first tip is educate yourself about Disney. Even if you don’t like to plan, being educated about the parks, rides, restaurants, shows, etc. will really help your trip be a lot less stressful. I am always surprised when I am waiting for a parade and there are people walking around with confused looks wondering why thousands of people are standing around. These confused people are unaware of the upcoming parade. Don’t spend all that money and potentially miss out on things because you’re clueless as to what’s happening around you.
There are many ways to educate yourself. With all the advanced technology there are tons of Facebook pages, (Editors note: we’d like to mention that Magically Speaking has a fun Facebook page) websites, and blogs (Editors note: like The Mouse for Less) that will provide readers with a variety of up-to-date information. Get on these sites and just read. Engross yourself in all that is Disney so that when your four year old daughter wants to experience Stitch’s Great Escape you know that might not be the best idea, or when your husband just needs an ice cream sandwich you know where to go about finding one. This isn’t about planning every detail out, but it is about knowing enough about Disney so you are prepared to make decisions and aren’t frustrated when the family starts asking you questions to which don’t know the answer.
2. What’s your purpose?
When heading to Disney you need to know what your purpose is for the trip. What I mean by this is talking to those in your travel party and determine what you want to get out of the trip. Is the goal to go and relax with a little Disney on the side, or is it to immerse yourself in all things Disney from sun up to sun down? This is an important conversation to have as it can drastically impact the rest of the your planning. Making sure everyone in your party is on the same page is also important. You don’t want to plan five full days at the park and later find out Grandma really wanted to spend more time at the pool relaxing. Figuring out the purpose of the trip is essential to the rest of your planning process.
Once you have determined the purpose of your trip, you can begin considering where you want to stay. The first question here is to stay on-site (a Disney Resorts) or off-site (a non-Disney hotel). Disney has a variety of amazing hotel options that will provide you with the full Disney experience. There are many advantages of staying at a Disney resort and I have fully enjoyed our time at ours. Disney resorts offer the advantage of Disney transportation and extra magic hours. If your purpose is to immerse yourself in all things Disney but still have some down time, Disney resorts provide this option as you can come and go from the parks more easily. Off site there are also a variety of wonderful hotels. Although I haven’t stayed off site in a few years, I know that many have found this option to suit their purpose. Those that want to be at the parks from sun up to sun down tend to like this option as they don’t need the close availability of the Disney resorts.
When determining at which resort to stay, make sure you look at your family needs. Do kids need a separate room? Do you need the bathroom and sink to be separate? Are kids going to need a nap? There are a lot of different factors when choosing a resort and it can be very overwhelming. I also make a spreadsheet with our must haves and then start comparing them. Once you have narrowed it down to a couple, refer back to idea number 1: educate. Research and read about the different resorts and what people have to say about them. Realize that there are also positives and negatives about the hotels, but it does help to hear what people are saying. Figuring out where to stay is a big decision and will help as you move on in your planning stages.
Everyone loves to eat and Disney is a great place to do this. Disney has three different levels of food service: table service (TS), quick service (QS) and snacks (S). When discussing the purpose of your trip, food is an important thing to talk about. Does your family want to have mainly sit down meals or do you want to be on the go? Does your daughter just have to eat with the princesses? Are character meals important? Does your littlest one only eat chicken nuggets? These are all conversations to have before booking your Disney vacation.
If you are staying on site, you also have the option of using the three main Disney Dining Plans. These plans are prepaid that you can purchase before leaving on your trip. They come in different levels from deluxe to the standard, to the quick service dining plan. Each provides a variety of different combinations. Again you have to decide what will work with your family. If you are more of a snack on the go family then the deluxe meal plan won’t be for you. Learn about what your options with each plan are and then look at the different restaurant menus to see what would appeal to your family. Even though it is a top rated restaurant that doesn’t mean it will be right for your family dynamic. It is a very stressful experience if people are hungry during your vacation, so make sure to educate yourself on all your options before heading out.
Although it would seem this would be the first question, I actually have learned that determining which park I am going to comes later in my planning. When deciding which park to go to, I use a variety of different resources.
A) Extra magic hours: These are bonus hours that Disney Resort guests can take advantage of either in the morning or late in the evening. Again, know your family. We are up early in the morning with our kids so we can take advantage of these bonus morning hours, but there was no way we could stay up until midnight so we didn’t use the benefit of evening magic hours on our last trip. It is always a good rule of thumb that if you can’t take advantage of the extra magic hours, to avoid those parks if you can as the parks do get overly crowded due to these bonus hours.
B) Crowd Calendars: There are a variety of sites out there that have done the research to help give you the best and worst park to visit each day. They can also give you the crowd level that is expected for those days. Many of these sites don’t suggest parks with extra magic hours as they are assuming their readers aren’t going to use them. Make sure you take that into consideration when planning for your family. If you can make the morning extra magic hours work, then do so for your family and then use the crowd calendar to determine where you might go in the afternoon.
C) Favorites: This would seem like a no brainer, but make sure when planning you look at your family favorites. We love a variety of rides at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, so we tend to spend more time there than other parks. Our kids weren’t fans of Epcot, so we didn’t spend a lot of time there as a family. On our adult’s only trip, my husband and I plan to spend more time there to enjoy what the park has to offer. Again look at the purpose of your trip. If it is to see everything at Disney (which is impossible by the way) you will need to spread out your park options, but if the purpose is to hit your favorites as many times as possible figure out your park schedule accordingly.
D) Food: Again everyone loves to eat and each park has their specialty restaurants. Look at the options at each park to decide if there are specific things you just have to have. If your daughter just has to eat at the castle, you are going to want to plan a day at Magic Kingdom to accommodate that dream. Or do you have to see Fantasmic? Then make sure you are at Disney’s Hollywood Studios one evening when it is being performed. Although Disney does provide great transportation between parks, I have learned that park hopping for reservations can be somewhat stressful, so we now book our restaurants at the parks we are planning to be at already to avoid that stress.
Disney parks have so much to offer and it can be overwhelming determining which ones to be at and when but I have learned that knowing when the extra magic hours are, reviewing a few crowd calendars from different sites and knowing my family’s favorite rides and restaurants all make the decision of which park on which day a little easier.
Walt Disney World is truly a world within itself and planning a trip to the magic land can sometimes feel like anything but magical. In my experience, if you take time to educate yourself on Disney it will help you make the best of your trip and will allow you to make decisions on your feet as well as help you better determine what resorts, restaurants and parks to visit. I hope that these five quick tips help you get your Disney vacation off to a magical start.