You’ve finally decided to go to Walt Disney World! You’re ready to pack up the kids (or just yourself) and head to Florida. You have images of rides, characters, and castles dancing in your head. But now what? Where do you start and how do you plan? If this is your first trip to Walt Disney World, this is the place for you!
This guide will help you sort through some of the questions you will need to answer and will serve as a starting point for making your trip memorable. Here are some of the areas you will need to consider:
Planning a trip to Walt Disney World will require a little time. Walt Disney World is big — 40 square miles big. That’s about the size of San Francisco or twice the size of Manhattan. There are over 70,000 cast members (the Disney word for employees) working at Walt Disney World. There are over 25 resort hotels and over 100 restaurants. All of these facts aren’t meant to scare off visitors, but rather show the size and variety available at Walt Disney World.
Know that planning a trip to a place of this size, especially a first trip, will require some decisions. You won’t do or so it all of this first trip. And since Disney parks are always evolving, there will always be something new to do on every trip. Plan this trip, your first, to see the highlights. See what interests you. Get a taste for the location. Know that you can always go back — and each year, many, many repeat visitors do just that!
When to Go
There are many factors to consider when deciding when to go to Walt Disney World. Consider some of the first to narrow down your choices for your first trip: school schedules, work schedules, and other activities or family obligations may narrow down the dates. Once you have taken care of your obligations, you can look at other factors.
The lightest crowds tend to be
- Mid-January through Early February
- Late April through Mid-May
- The week following Labor Day through the week before Thanksgiving
- The week following Thanksgiving through the second week in December
Notice that these also tend to be times when schools are in session. It follows that these lighter crowd times also tend to be the times when the cost of a Disney vacation is the lowest. Please note, holiday weekends (such as President’s Day in February) are much busier than the surrounding days during each of these times.
Conversely, the higher crowd times are also the most expensive. The busiest week of the year is the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The hotel pricing for this week has its own special category. Other busy times are the weeks before and after Easter, the general spring break season (mid-March through mid-April), summer, and President’s Day Weekend.
The benefit of the busier times is that there are generally fewer attractions and amenities closed for refurbishment, and the park hours tend to be longer.
Along with crowds and pricing, the weather is another factor to consider. The summers in Florida are hot and humid. If you don’t like to be warm, this may not be the time for you. The summer also tends to be the rainy season, although most summer storms in Florida last a short time and disappear. It does tend to rain more often than not in the afternoon during the summer.
For a more in-depth look at these factors, visit our Choosing Vacation Dates. Consider these factors when planning your first trip.
How to Get There
Planes, trains, and automobiles are all options. Which one to choose depends on not only the budget but time as well. Depending on your starting point, driving can add a significant amount of time to your trip. Flying is a fast way to travel, but it can cost more than driving, especially if you have a family traveling together.
You will need to often add a day each way for driving. If your time is limited, this can cut down on the park time and relaxation time.
While two airports serve the area, there is a significant benefit of flying into Orlando International Airport — Disney’s Magical Express. This no-cost transportation takes you from the airport directly to your Disney hotel. The service will even deliver your bags from the airport to your room without you having to retrieve them from the baggage claim. This, along with Disney’s extensive on-site transportation system of buses, boats, and monorails, eliminates the need for a rental car or personal car during a Walt Disney World stay.
While air travel or personal car are two of the more popular choices for getting to Walt Disney World, you can also explore the options of bus, train, or rental car. Take a look at each option to decide what would work best for your family.
Where to Stay
Central Florida has a significant number of options for your stay. There are over twenty-five on-site resorts at the Walt Disney World Resort that cater to a variety of tastes and budgets. Then there are off-site hotels, house rentals, and timeshares (not including Disney’s Vacation Club villas).
There are definite advantages to staying on Walt Disney World property. Transportation is one of those. Bus, boat, or monorail service (depending on the resort) is available to all four theme parks, two water parks, and Disney Springs free of charge for guests. This means no expense of driving or renting a car, and no need to find directions. While this is an easy option, it does require additional time to wait for transportation.
Another advantage of staying on Disney property is Extra Magic Hours: Each day, one (or more) or the theme parks either opens one hour early or stays open two hours past closing time only for Disney resort guests. This means lower crowds for getting in rides and attractions.
As the Fastpass+ system evolves and is rolled out, there may continue to be benefits for on-site guests. Currently, guests staying at a Walt Disney World resort who have also purchased tickets can reserve Fastpasses up to 60 days in advance and can reserve their entire trip at one time. Other guests must wait until 30 days before their trip to select Fastpasses and must schedule them one day at a time. As this system continues to evolve, this is a definite planning advantage for on-site guests.
To see more reasons to stay at a Disney resort, visit our Benefits of Staying at a Disney Resort page. Not sure about staying on property? There are times when it makes sense to stay off-site as well. Visit our guide on deciding where to stay when taking a Walt Disney World vacation.
If you have decided to stay at a Disney resort, but don’t know how to go about selecting which one, we have a guide to Choosing a Disney Resort that will highlight the differences between the categories of resorts. Once you settle on a category, you can see more about each resort, including amenities and rates, by visiting our Resort Guides.
Where to Eat
Right now, you may be thinking, “My vacation is many months away, why do I need to consider where I’m having dinner in six months?” It’s one of the differences in planning a Disney vacation and a vacation to another location.
Disney restaurants begin accepting Advance Dining Reservations six months (180 days) ahead of time. Believe it or not, some locations will book up that far in advance. And if you have your heart set on a certain dining experience, you will need an Advance Dining Reservation. Guests traveling at crowded times (go back up to the “When to Go” section to see if you are planning during one of those times) will especially need to plan ahead.
While you won’t starve at a Disney park without planning ahead, you will miss out on some great experiences. Disney Parks and Resorts have some amazing table-service venues that add to the experience of visiting Walt Disney World. Some people find the restaurants to be one of the highlights of their trips. Disney works hard to offer a wide variety of different cuisines and work to provide healthy and delicious food alternatives. Of course, you will find burgers and chicken strips in the parks, but there are so many options, many guests don’t even look for these fast-food staples.
Start by exploring some of the menus at the restaurants. You don’t have to choose your exact meal, but you can see if the restaurant appeals to you and your family.
Some restaurants feature characters. These are great and relaxing ways to visit with some favorite characters. Imagine Mickey Mouse coming to visit you at your table while you eat. Photographs and autographs can be had without a line, and with a meal. You can see why these locations will book up first, and likely will not be available to walk up to and get a table. If characters are important to your family, we highly recommend booking at least one character dining experience on your first trip.
Another consideration for dining is the Disney Dining Plans. These are available for on-site guests who purchase a hotel package (hotel and tickets). There are a few options, with the Quick Service Dining Plan and the Standard Dining Plan being the most popular. These dining plans are a great way to get a handle on dining costs ahead of time. They also can be money savers. The dining plan that is right for you depends on how you will eat. Does your family prefer only quick-service (fast food-type) locations? Then the Quick Service plan may meet your needs. Do you like to have a table-service meal each day to have some family time to sit down and relax? Then a standard Dining Plan may work for you. If you prefer more table-service options, there are other plans as well.
Whether you choose a dining plan or not, planning for your dining choices -or at least some of your dining choices – will be a definite advantage when you get to Walt Disney World.
What to Do When You Are There
So you’ve saved, and planned, and made reservations. Now what? Have fun, of course!
That being said, even having fun at Walt Disney World requires a little advanced planning. There is so much to see and do; you can’t do it all it one trip, especially your first trip. That may be the most important thing for new visitors to remember. Even a two-week trip would leave things untouched. There are four theme parks, two water parks, the Disney Springs shopping and entertainment district, mini-golf courses, resort hotels, marinas, fishing expeditions, special events, and the list goes on. Find what appeals to you and your family and go from there.
Trying to do it all will undoubtedly lead to a less-than-magical experience. Make sure to build in some time to stop and smell the roses. While many people do go on their first trip assuming it will be their only trip and try to do it all, you may find after that you can’t wait to return. Plan some time to swim in the resort pool. Make at least one Advance Dining Reservation at a restaurant and experience the food and fun. Check out any special events that may be happening during your stay. Just make sure to make your trip memorable.
One of the most significant and most recent changes to a Disney vacation is the Fastpass+ system. Even experienced travelers will need to change how they plan their trips slightly. Once you book your first trip (or your travel agent books it), go to StartYourDisneyExperience.com and begin planning. Link your hotel reservation, add your family, and customize your Magic Bands. Begin working with the FastPass+ reservations (60 days ahead of your trip) or Dining Reservations (180 days ahead of your trip). If you have a smartphone, download the My Disney Experience app. You will find this useful once you get to the parks.
Another way to help decide what to do once you get there is to watch a Disney planning video. Watch the video with your whole family, and have everyone find something that they would like to see on their first trip. Making sure you hit some of the must-do attractions while leaving some time for spontaneity, is key. Besides the official Disney planning video, you can also see travel specials highlighting different aspects of the parks. These are available on services like Netflix for your planning enjoyment.
Remember that the crowd levels will determine the number of attractions you can visit. As will the age and stamina of the travelers. There is a handy guide that highlights the height requirements of specific rides. Take a look at that to determine what younger riders can experience.
There are several recreational activities to experience without being in a theme park. Our Recreation Pricing and Information guide will help you look at the experiences available and determine if you would like to add on to your first trip.
There is plenty to do without a day of tickets at Walt Disney World. There is also so much to do within the four theme parks. Each park can easily hold your attention for a day. Magic Kingdom and Epcot may even take longer to explore — Epcot because of its size and Magic Kingdom because of its classic attractions.