Be Prepared. Again. We wondered how long it takes the members of our Parenting Panel to plan their trips. This week we asked: How far in advance do you start planning your Disney theme park or cruise line trips or making arrangements?
Jen, also known as *Nala,* is an engineer, a Disney fan, and a MouseAdventure fanatic. She lives in Southern California with her husband and two future MouseAdventurers, ages 10 months and 2 1/2 years. Jen writes:
I am an admitted overplanner. I've booked trips for babies who weren't even born yet at the time of booking. That said, like it or hate it, much of Disney's reservation system is set up to favor the advance planner.
We usually begin discussing potential Walt Disney World Resort trips a year or more in advance. We'll think about what time of year we want to visit, whether we want to be there for a particular holiday or event, or if we'd rather go when prices or crowds might be a little lower. Early planning also helps us decide whether we'll want to purchase a Premier Annual Passport, valid at both the Disneyland and Walt Disney World resorts, for the year. Once we've decided when we want to travel, Disney's booking windows help us decide when to do the rest of our planning.
- 11 months – We are Disney Vacation Club (DVC) members, and will nearly always take advantage of the 11-month, home-resort booking window. If we are planning to travel at more popular times of the year, or if we want specific dates or room types, we will call Member Services or log on and book online on that first available day.
- 7 months – More often than not, we will try to change our DVC resort reservation when the seven-month window opens and we are allowed to book outside our non-home resort. We usually have a couple of resort choices in mind in case our first choice is unavailable.
- 3-11 months – Once our room reservation is made and our dates are locked in, I'll start the search for good air fares. I use the fare predictor at bing.com and search every couple of weeks or so until I find a fare we're comfortable paying. I make sure to reserve seats together when I book my plane tickets, crucial for traveling with small children. After booking plane tickets, we'll add Disney's Magical Express service to our reservation. While it takes a little longer to get to the resort than a shuttle or a rental car, we can't beat a free ride from the airport and the convenience of having Mickey carry the luggage.
- 180 days (or so) – We'll make Advance Dining Reservations. This is one item I don't always book as soon as the window opens, as we haven't usually chosen the most popular restaurants and times. I tend to book dining three to five months in advance, and I like to use the online reservation system as it allows me to easily see all available restaurants and times. I'll look at Disney's park hours when I'm booking dining to get an idea of what parks we might want to visit on what days, and whether or not to take advantage of (or avoid) Extra Magic Hours.
- 1-2 months – Now we're getting close! During the last couple months is when I'll plan any remaining trip details, such as stroller rentals or shuttle rides to and from the airport.
- 1 week – If we've planned it right, all that's left to do is pack and get ready to enjoy our Disney vacation!
Chris, also known as GusMan, is always planning his next family trip to the Walt Disney World Resort and loves to help others plan their trips, as well sharing his experiences. Chris writes:
It's been said many times that planning a Disney trip is part of the fun. I think it's more accurate to say that the more trips you plan, the more fun it actually gets. This is probably because the first few vacations are, in essence, trial-and-error experiences. Regardless of the planning tools and methods used, there is nothing like real-world experiences to determine what works best for your family.
Many of my friends ask how far in advance you should plan your next Disney vacation. While answers may vary, my personal best advice is to start the planning process as soon as you know that you want to go, even if it is a year or more out. However, it is reasonable to say that planning a trip six to eight months out gives a good amount of time to plan a great trip. I mention this especially for the benefit of those who are new to planning a Disney trip, because there are a lot of different items to consider. Broken down into their individual components, planning is rather simple, but it still can take some time and research. Every time you go, the process will go a little faster, and certainly easier.
I know that every person has their personal style as to how to plan their trip and I think that every experience has something good to adapt into your own methods. For my family and I, we tend to plan our trips in a certain rough order:
- Time of year and how long you would like to stay – Like many vacation destinations, Disney does has its busier times of the year. While everyone would like to go when the crowds are smaller, you need to take other things into consideration. Dependencies such as school schedules and availability for vacation time for work are factors that need to be looked at. For the kids, it may not be the best situation to take the kids out during the school year. For adults, it might be easier to enjoy a vacation when you know that your workload will allow.
- Budget – I think one of the biggest mistakes people make when planning a Disney trip is not budgeting, and saving, for their trip properly. Disney is not inexpensive, but there are ways to help keep costs in check. Start with what you think you might want to spend on your vacation and then compare to what you find to be the estimates for your specific trip.
- Lodging – Determining where you will stay tends to be one of the bigger deciding points mainly because it takes up a very large portion of your budget. Additionally, there are so many choices on property that it will be somewhat overwhelming to choose between them. Keep in mind that when the crowds are smaller, you tend to see the best lodging and dining plan deals. The busier times tend to be the most expensive, especially around major holidays.
- Mode of travel – Depending on how you travel, you might find that this is almost equally as expensive as the rest of your trip. Planning this out as early as possible helps set the budget expectations. When you have more time than money, a good old-fashioned road trip can extend your vacation and build some great memories. At times, time is not in your favor, thus the need to fly and the subsequent need for a larger budget.
- Tickets and Dining – I'm mentioning these two items at one time because there are many variables that they share. Costs will differ depending on how long you want to stay and what sort of dining experiences you would like to have. Don't forget to include any meal costs during your travel time, as well.
- Book the trip – Once you have a rough outline of what you want your trip to look like, you need to talk to someone about specifics. Calling Disney directly or acquiring a good, independent travel agent who specializes in Disney vacations would be a good start. They can give you not only specific costs to your proposed vacations, but they can also give you other options that you may not have considered. Some options can save you money or give you a better value for the same costs. There are some benefits to using an independent agent over Disney, especially if you are new to planning a Disney vacation. For us, we have used both avenues to booking our trips and have never been disappointed.
It can be easily said that once you start vacationing at Disney on a regular basis, you tend to perpetually plan your next trip. In some cases, that might be true. It becomes a fun hobby with a payout that includes some great family time and wonderful memories.
Mary Kraemer is an avid Disney fan and travel consultant with CruisingCo/MouseEarVacations who loves to travel with her husband and children to Disney destinations as often as possible! Mary writes
I'm really glad to have this topic because, just a few days ago, someone asked me to find a cruise for their family over Thanksgiving week, thinking that there would be staterooms aplenty and the cruise line just giving them away to fill space. They were astonished not that I was able to find them two staterooms on the Disney Wonder, but that both competitor ships in Los Angeleswere completely sold out.
I get a lot of inquiries from people who want to know "when is the really incredible discounted offer that was available last year going to happen this year?" They wait to book, hoping that this offer will reappear, which is never a guarantee.
I can't tell you the number of people who contact me well after a new offer has been released at Walt Disney World, wanting to book a vacation, only to find that Disney truly did mean "limited availability at certain resorts." Or people who are able to book a package under an offer but then discover that they can't get a reservation at Cinderella's Royal Table to celebrate their princess' 5th birthday.
Or the inevitable questions I receive about Disney Cruise Line pricing, when itineraries have been released for several months and the costs have increased for staterooms. And then there's the situation where several families want to cruise together, have staterooms located next to one another, and, if there's availability, it's nearly impossible to find staterooms right next door to each other.
These are some of the difficult situations that I encounter all too often as a travel professional. People wait for various reasons, and then find a lack of availability, general difficulties, or, sometimes increased prices for their vacation.
If only they knew how easy it is to do some simple planning in advance. For Walt Disney World, for example, pick a date when you want to go on vacation; decide on the details, such as the resort where you'd like to stay; and, even if there is no discounted offer available right now, book the trip with a deposit of $200. This will give you a reservation number so you can make dining reservations 180 days in advance. That number will let you book the specific restaurants you want for your trip rather than wondering why you can't get into Chef Mickey's for the character breakfast when you try to book two months in advance.
But what if a new offer is released after the time you pay the deposit, you ask? Well, I always check for new offers and make sure that any discounts or amenities are applied to the reservation, and I still have all the other components for the vacation in place, such as the dining reservations. Even if you need to shift dates just a little, you can modify the existing reservation.
For Disney Cruise Line, the best advice I can offer is to make a reservation as soon as new itineraries are released. The deposit is not a flat $200, but is a percentage of the cost of your stateroom. When itineraries are released, it's possible that your travel date is more than a year away, and I've often applied a discount (such as Kids Sail Free) to an existing reservation if the new offer is better. You get the stateroom you want and not worry about lack of availability or a stateroom that's across the hallway from the laundry room.
To me, waiting to make vacation plans just doesn't make sense. The old saying, "The early bird catches the worm," is very true, and you can make the most of your vacation with the least amount of stress!
It's your turn—keep the discussion flowing!
Visit the Parenting in the Parks forum on our MousePad discussion board, and share your opinions about this topic or many others, or send your suggestions via e-mail. Reader-submitted tips might be used in a future article, and you might be selected to participate in an upcoming panel discussion!