The Seven Cardinal Virtues of Disney Vacation Planning

by Steve Russo, staff writer
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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.


If this is on your list, book early. Photo by Steve Russo.

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?"


Have a plan – but leave some time to stop and smell the roses. Photo by Steve Russo.

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!

Comments

  1. By Jimbo996

    The exaggeration is the implied comparison to Manhattan. Despite the square miles of the WDW Resort with its 4 parks, 2 water parks, shopping, etc, it is largely surrounded by swampland (empty space). You make it seem like a person should see it all if it wasn't consider delusional. Actually, the Disney fan is encouraged to see it all if given the right amount of time like 10 days. I was surely sold on this in the past when it was possible when it had only two parks and NOT four today. Even so, is it so difficult? You can buy a 10 day park pass that gives you at least 2 days at each park. You will surely be bored to spend two full days each at Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios, which are both half day parks.

    Why would you want to see the 30 resorts and many restaurants and shopping? Again, implied that you should visit them when in reality, it is not necessary to visit every single spot. There are those McDonald's and Starbucks fans that visit every single location. That isn't what should be done on vacation.

    Real Tip #1, Set realistic expectations - Just 4 Parks (or just do the ones you like).

  2. By srusso100

    Quote Originally Posted by Jimbo996 View Post
    The exaggeration is the implied comparison to Manhattan. Despite the square miles of the WDW Resort with its 4 parks, 2 water parks, shopping, etc, it is largely surrounded by swampland (empty space). You make it seem like a person should see it all if it wasn't consider delusional. Actually, the Disney fan is encouraged to see it all if given the right amount of time like 10 days. I was surely sold on this in the past when it was possible when it had only two parks and NOT four today. Even so, is it so difficult? You can buy a 10 day park pass that gives you at least 2 days at each park. You will surely be bored to spend two full days each at Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios, which are both half day parks.

    Why would you want to see the 30 resorts and many restaurants and shopping? Again, implied that you should visit them when in reality, it is not necessary to visit every single spot. There are those McDonald's and Starbucks fans that visit every single location. That isn't what should be done on vacation.

    Real Tip #1, Set realistic expectations - Just 4 Parks (or just do the ones you like).

    Well, one doesn't visit Manhattan attempting to visit every resort, hotel, restaurant, tourist location, etc. I don't think it is an exaggeration to compare the two. As you say, a large chunk of WDW is empty space but a good portion of it must be traversed when traveling to and from locations. Many folks aren't prepared for that and a 15-20 minute car or bus ride is surprising to them.

    I disagree with Animal Kingdom and the Studios being 1/2 day parks but that's a debate unto itself.

    I don't think I wrote that anyone would want to visit all "30 resorts and many restaurants and shopping" but it's realistic to believe many will visit all 4 theme parks, several resorts and restaurants, and Downtown Disney. Even at 10 days, that's a large task. That's the point I was attempting to make.

  3. By Jimbo996

    Quote Originally Posted by srusso100 View Post
    Well, one doesn't visit Manhattan attempting to visit every resort, hotel, restaurant, tourist location, etc. I don't think it is an exaggeration to compare the two. As you say, a large chunk of WDW is empty space but a good portion of it must be traversed when traveling to and from locations. Many folks aren't prepared for that and a 15-20 minute car or bus ride is surprising to them.
    The comparison is based on space as it implies it makes a difference when the two places don't have the same density. The 15-20 minutes ride is mostly on wait time, not traveling time, and it sometimes it takes longer from bigger crowds. This is a negative when Disney designs their parks so far apart when the idea, I suppose, is to get away from the real world. The real world of crowds and traffic has never gone away.

    I don't think I wrote that anyone would want to visit all "30 resorts and many restaurants and shopping" but it's realistic to believe many will visit all 4 theme parks, several resorts and restaurants, and Downtown Disney. Even at 10 days, that's a large task. That's the point I was attempting to make.

    I didn't say you said this, but Disney does market its offerings and many fan planning sites (not necessarily you) have touted visiting many places within WDW. The fact that this information filtered down to so many tourists suggests the messaging worked. It also worked on me, which I regretted my mega vacation that costed me a bundle and I ended up feeling a bit fleeced.

    People should be encouraged to focus on the 4 parks. That's the reason for visiting. The restaurants, stores, and resorts are the side shows. Missing them will not ruin your vacation. They can add to your vacation, but only if you're discerning and really want to visit them instead of something less suitable.

  4. By danyoung

    Steve, I'm constantly amazed at how much your style and mine line up. I especially like the advice about daypart planning, and not going overboard. There's another website with an area for posting personal itineraries, and then getting comment from others about which ride to do first, why the Peoplemover works better in the afternoon, etc. Some people enjoy this type of detail in their plans (or the scrutinizing of other people's plans!). But I do much better if I plan that on this day I'm going to the MK in the morning, Epcot at night, where I'm eating, and not much else. If I had to get into specific riding of attractions in a specific order I think I'd go nuts!

    Oh, and the comparison of WDW to Manhattan has been a pretty standard one for years. Everyone knows that Manhattan is far more dense than the World, but it's important for people to understand the size of the place - especially those who grew up with DisneyLAND and its compact layout.

  5. By srusso100

    Quote Originally Posted by danyoung View Post
    Steve, I'm constantly amazed at how much your style and mine line up. I especially like the advice about daypart planning, and not going overboard. There's another website with an area for posting personal itineraries, and then getting comment from others about which ride to do first, why the Peoplemover works better in the afternoon, etc. Some people enjoy this type of detail in their plans (or the scrutinizing of other people's plans!). But I do much better if I plan that on this day I'm going to the MK in the morning, Epcot at night, where I'm eating, and not much else. If I had to get into specific riding of attractions in a specific order I think I'd go nuts!

    Oh, and the comparison of WDW to Manhattan has been a pretty standard one for years. Everyone knows that Manhattan is far more dense than the World, but it's important for people to understand the size of the place - especially those who grew up with DisneyLAND and its compact layout.

    Great minds, Dan, great minds ;-)

    Regarding the Manhattan analogy... I have a section of my book (another shameless plug) where I compare the options for travel around Manhattan to moving around Disney World. They're not that different, in my opinion of course. If you're in Manhattan and need to get from Wall Street to the upper East side, you have numerous options including taxi, bus and/or train - and usually some walking. Now think about having to get to the Wilderness Lodge from All Stars Sports... or...

  6. By baylakebeliever

    Absolutely! Remember it's a vacation. You, your family/friends are there to have fun and unwind from the stress of everyday life. Yes, there will be bumps in the road and things will go wrong but as you said learn to 'go with it'. Back in 2010 we ended up with 45 (yes, forty-five) fast passes because of changes in our vacation plans, (it's a very long story )but one that has a great ending! Any how I believe that by only experiencing the parks you miss out on so much of what WDW has to offer. Some of our most magical moments have happened while doing activities outside of the parks. My boys love, love, LOVE, Sammy Duvall's and a trip to WDW for them includes many hours on Bay Lake parasailing, jet skiing and tubing. In fact it was part of the reason we joined DVC at BLT. I know from reading trip reports on this site that some even go to WDW when their park passes are blacked out to enjoy the resort hotels and restaurants. So tour the parks but take a few moments to slow down, relax , and explore everything else there is to do on your vacation at WDW.
    Thanks Steve for all the good words about MDE. Our DVC window opens in a few weeks and I can't wait to try it. As always we look forward to and enjoy your articles every month!


    Gail

  7. By srusso100

    Quote Originally Posted by baylakebeliever View Post
    Absolutely! Remember it's a vacation. You, your family/friends are there to have fun and unwind from the stress of everyday life. Yes, there will be bumps in the road and things will go wrong but as you said learn to 'go with it'. Back in 2010 we ended up with 45 (yes, forty-five) fast passes because of changes in our vacation plans, (it's a very long story )but one that has a great ending! Any how I believe that by only experiencing the parks you miss out on so much of what WDW has to offer. Some of our most magical moments have happened while doing activities outside of the parks. My boys love, love, LOVE, Sammy Duvall's and a trip to WDW for them includes many hours on Bay Lake parasailing, jet skiing and tubing. In fact it was part of the reason we joined DVC at BLT. I know from reading trip reports on this site that some even go to WDW when their park passes are blacked out to enjoy the resort hotels and restaurants. So tour the parks but take a few moments to slow down, relax , and explore everything else there is to do on your vacation at WDW.
    Thanks Steve for all the good words about MDE. Our DVC window opens in a few weeks and I can't wait to try it. As always we look forward to and enjoy your articles every month!


    Gail

    Thanks, Gail.

  8. By mkelm44

    A caveat to #4... don't marry the plan. You may decide that you are spending a day at Epcot. You go to Epcot and realize that your family is really enjoying EPCOT more than you anticipated for and you don't get everything done there that you want to do. Have a conversation with all members of the family/traveling party and decide if you want to return to EPCOT even though the plan doesn't call for it, and if so what do you want to give up instead?

    That way everyone has ownership of the trip and nobody can complain later that they didn't get to do what they wanted to. You can always use it as a promise for the next vacation that the thing that was missed will be first on the list.

    #8 The party doesn't have to stay together. If there are some attractions that are not appropriate or appealing to a subset of your traveling party, plan on seperating. It doesn't make sense for Dad and Son to be sitting outside the bibbi-bobbi-boutique while Mom and Daughter get makeovers, especially if there is something else they want to do. Everyone will have more fun, there will be less guilt, and you can all share experiences later.

    #9 (or maybe 1B) Know who is allowed on what ride, especially when there are kids involved. Don't hype up Space Mountain, only to find out that your child is two inches two short to ride it. The child who has been wanting to go on space mountain for months and months and months and months will be crushed.

    10. Think about the cost of everything ahead of time. While Disney is a great value in terms of cost (many things that would cost more, such as transportation are built into your package) there's still a lot of cost involved. So many great restaurants, fun and unique souveniers, extra experiences, etc are also there at Disney. Set budgets for how much you are willing to spend on meals, on souveneirs, etc. and stick to it. Menus with prices are available for restaurants for example. Maybe it means you won't be able to eat at all of the restaurants you want, but at least you'll be able to afford the vacation at the end of the day... Better to have a wish list for next time than a big credit card bill that prevents a future visit...

  9. By relaaxedwheniamthere

    steve, steve, steve, I see you did not take my advice about prefacing your blog SO AS NOT TO OFFEND JIMBO996 . ANY CHANCE TO SEE YOU @ ROSE & CROWN MID SEPT ???

  10. By srusso100

    Quote Originally Posted by relaaxedwheniamthere View Post
    steve, steve, steve, I see you did not take my advice about prefacing your blog SO AS NOT TO OFFEND JIMBO996 . ANY CHANCE TO SEE YOU @ ROSE & CROWN MID SEPT ???

    Sorry... I won't be at the Rose and Crown until late October.

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