In last month's column, The Seven Deadly Sins of Disney Vacation Planning, we took a look at some common, and uncommon, mistakes people make that have the potential to ruin a Walt Disney World Vacation. I received some wonderful feedback on that article with some great tips on a few other items I may have overlooked.
This month, we'll reverse positions and look away from the "Don'ts" of vacation planning to the "Dos". What are the more significant tips we can offer to those planning a Disney World trip? Items that might make a good vacation better or a better one great?
[Column Intermission—I searched far and wide for a title for this article—looking for the opposite of the Seven Deadly Sins and, grudgingly, settled on the Seven Cardinal Virtues. That sounds a bit too grandiose for one of my columns but I couldn't find anything better so we're stuck with it.]
Before we get started, let's cover some ground I neglected in the previous article. If you're a Disney veteran—someone that has planned dozens (or scores) of trips—I fully realize that planning might be minimal. You could just about make reservations on a Friday night, fly out Saturday with an Annual Pass in your pocket, and have a great time in the coming week—with essentially no advance planning whatsoever. That's an extreme case but I've actually done something similar—making airline, resort and dining reservations only three weeks prior to touchdown in Orlando—and I lived to tell about it.
With that said, I think you'd agree that regardless of experience level, a certain amount of planning is beneficial to minimize any negative surprises and, to the extent possible, ensure a successful vacation. Allow me to quote from my book (inserting a shameless plug here):
"Walt Disney World is a million square miles and is larger than most planets. In the summer, the temperature often exceeds that of the surface of the sun. During holiday weeks, three-fourths of the population of mainland USA is in attendance. If you don't make a dining reservation six years in advance, you have no shot at eating anything during your entire trip. That's all hyperbole but there's a point to be made. Some level of planning is absolutely necessary for a successful trip. (Read that last sentence aloud several times. Go ahead … I'll wait.)"
Got that? If you're buying into it, here are my Seven Cardinal Virtues for planning a successful Walt Disney World vacation and, as always, feel free to let me know where you agree or disagree.
Tip #1 – Set realistic expectations
Several readers submitted this gem last month and I couldn't agree more.
I exaggerated when I wrote that Walt Disney World is a million square miles—but it does cover 42 square miles (an area larger than Manhattan) and includes four major theme parks, two water parks, a shopping and entertainment district, 30-plus resorts hotels and many, many restaurants and lounges. It has a robust transportation system consisting of monorails, buses and enough watercraft to outfit a medium-sized navy. To think you'll be able to "see it all" in a week is delusional.
Set your expectations based on the size and ages of your family. Pick out the highlights and must-do items in advance and plan accordingly. Estimate your stamina and then lower your estimate by 10 to 20 percent. Touring Walt Disney World is tiring and I can't overemphasize the benefits of midday breaks.
Tip #2 – Start planning early
As a Disney Vacation Club (DVC) member, I tend to start planning at 11 months. That's the opening of the window when I can reserve a room at my home resort, the Boardwalk Villas. Because the Boardwalk tends to fill up more quickly than some others, I'll try to reserve as close to 11 months in advance as possible—although I don't always make it.
You certainly don't need to begin planning that early unless you're looking to visit during a very crowded time such as Christmas Week. However, if you have your heart set on a specific resort, the earlier the better. You can always modify a reservation (within Disney's cancellation rules) as you get closer to accommodate changes, newly released discounts, and so on.
Somewhere between two and six months, depending upon the time of year, should offer adequate time to get your choice of resorts, coordinate airline reservations and rough out a schedule with your dining choices. Speaking of dining…
Tip #3 – Use a process to select restaurants for Advance Dining Reservations (ADR)
If you plan on cooking your own meals or dining at counter service establishments only, skip to the next tip. However, if you plan one or more meals at Walt Disney World's table service restaurants, you'll probably want to have a few ADRs made before your trip. These may be made 180 days in advance and, while the full 180 days is typically not needed, you'll want to make the important ones as early as feasible to ensure you aren't locked out. The imposing task in front of you is now picking from the extensive list of restaurants available.
There are a number of ways to do this but I'll offer one that works for my family, regardless of the number attending. We get together as a group and everyone brings their top two or three restaurant suggestions. We'll then tally this list putting the top vote getters first and hone the list down to a manageable few. At 180 days prior to the trip, I'll go online and make these reservations, first laying out the park hours with a general plan for which parks and resorts we'll visit and on which days.
This system isn't perfect and we'll typically fine-tune it with changes, additions and deletions as the trip grows closer but… it does provide a great foundation.
Tip #4 – Have a high-level park touring plan
In order to make Tip #3 work, you need a park touring plan. It won't work if you're planning a dinner in Epcot's World Showcase on a night when you absolutely have to be in the Magic Kingdom for the Electrical Parade and Wishes. Well… it can, but it's extremely difficult and counterproductive.
I'm not suggesting you produce a plan in 15-minute intervals and detail each and every attraction you'll visit. If that's your thing, by all means go for it. What I would suggest however, and what works for me, is a general plan of which parks we'll visit each day, breaking a day into the components of morning, afternoon and evening. I'll tell you now that this advance plan is never 100 percent accurate. We'll always make changes as we see fit due to weather, crowds or a simple whim. In my opinion, if you overregiment your plan, you're inviting failure.
I'll add one more benefit of having a touring plan—if you're traveling with a larger group, really anything more than four or five people, it's essential. Without one, you'll waste lots of time asking and discussing "Where do we go now/tomorrow/next?"
Tip #5 – Pack intelligently
That's simple advice for anyone, right? Get a feel for the weather during the time of year you're visiting and be prepared for heat, cold, rain, pestilence… whatever. Orlando's weather is not that hard to predict (except in December and January when it's predictably unpredictable) so know it will be really hot in the summer and rain most every day and you should pack your clothing and rain gear accordingly.
Equally important is how you pack. With as much success as they have, airlines and Disney's Magical Express can misplace your luggage. Needed medications belong with you, in a carryon bag, not in your checked luggage. Similarly, if you plan on swimming at your resort as soon as you check in, make sure your swimsuit is not in your checked luggage.
Tip #6 – Use My Disney Experience
I'd be the first one to bemoan most of Disney's electronic venues. Their websites are often cumbersome, nonintuitive, and unable to handle high volumes of traffic.
Nevertheless, I've become a real fan of My Disney Experience—both the website and the accompanying smartphone app. Once you've gone through the registration process, you can link all your resort reservations, ticket media and dining reservations together so they show up in one spot—both on the Web site and the phone app. Trust me… that's a very good thing.
I was once a user and proponent of the vacation spreadsheet. For me it was single-stop shopping—a single spreadsheet that contained park hours, resort reservation numbers, ADRs, high-level touring plan, etc. Now all that information is contained within My Disney Experience.
While that alone is reason enough to use the app, the real benefit (at least to me) is much of it is automatic. As long as I login correctly, the resort or dining reservations I make online will show up in my itinerary automatically complete with date and reservation number. I no longer have to rekey that information into a spreadsheet.
Another real benefit is the ability to link your traveling companions so they can see these details and be apprised of any changes made.
Did I mention this app also offers accurate wait times and Fastpass distribution information for all attractions? That's a great time saver as is the ability to manage dining reservations. I once canceled a dinner reservation and made another while waiting for the bus at Animal Kingdom. You have to love that kind of flexibility.
Lastly, and you know this is coming soon, this will be the place to select and manage your MagicBands and advance Fastpass tickets (Fastpass+) for your entire traveling party. Much of this is in the testing phase today, but it will be here before we know it and becoming familiar with My Disney Experience should give you a leg up.
Tip #7 – Remember it's a vacation
Here's something you can bet the house on—something will go wrong. There will be a mix-up at the airline, rental car counter, Disney's Magical Express… somewhere. Go with it. It's not the end of the world. If you make the best of it, you'll likely have a fond memory for some time. My family still talks about our 1995 trip, which is now affectionately known as the "trip from hell". We spent seven hours at the Albany airport due to an ice storm in Washington, DC. We finally landed in Orlando at 1:30 A.M. I couldn't get near the rental car counter to get our reserved car as the line of 15 people hadn't moved in 45 minutes. We checked into the All-Star Sports resort at 3 A.M. and were finally in our rooms and unpacked at 4 A.M. We still hit the parks the next day and returned to learn we were sharing our resort with over 3,000 13- to 15-year-old cheerleaders… and we still remember that trip fondly!