Pre-Planning at the Disney Parks

by Adrienne Krock, staff writer

Recently, MousePad member DisneyMomandJack excitedly posted on MousePlanet's MousePad message boards about planning her son's first trip to a Disney theme park. Among her questions, I turned shared this one with our Parenting Panel: When planning your Disney theme park trip, what needs pre-planning?

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:

If you are a regular reader of this column, you can guess that we are all pretty much avid planners when it comes to our Disney vacations. This may be due to certain character traits or it may also be due to experiences. Eventually, it becomes a combination of both as you cannot expect any sort of family vacation experience to get better if you do not learn from the experiences of the past.

While there are books, guides, and forums to help you plan your vacation, all the information and decisions can still be rather overwhelming. From my past experiences, here are the key areas that we plan out with significant detail.

  • Budget – Every trip should have one. Failure to do so can leave you feeling like all you did was spend money. Not only does having a budget help guide you when it comes to planning, but it also helps you stay calm when it comes to your overall finances when you return home. Budget things such as transportation, food, lodging, tickets, souvenirs, and other necessary items that you will need for your vacation. Get detailed if you have to. Crunch numbers to compare driving versus flying. Seek out dining options and balance what you want to spend with the places you really want to try. Don't forget consumables such as water, snacks, batteries, memory cards for the camera, and sunscreen. It can add up.
  • Your travel date – This can get more complicated than you think. Consider the impact of taking your kids out of school against other vacation times. Make sure you talk this out with your child's teachers and know what you are up against. Some schools, or even some states, have rules regarding attendance that can really influence when you vacation. Whatever you find out – get it in writing so there are no issues later.
  • Dining While I mentioned dining as a part of the budget, you should have an idea of how your family is going to dine. Dining is a great part of the Disney experience and the best advice I can provide is that if you plan on any Table Service dining, or if you are using a dining plan that includes Table Service credits you need to get Advance Dining Reservations (ADRs). You can do this 180 days out and while that may seem like a lot of time before your trip to try to decide what you want to eat, its nearly the only way to try some of the most popular eateries. Those who do not plan ADRs and expect to get walk-up seating are generally disappointed, though there can be some options available from time to time.
  • Lodging – Sometimes overlooked as such, your hotel room is your “home base” for your vacation. Where you stay is about as important as anything else, especially with younger children. Location near a favorite park may be a benefit if you want the shortest travel times to the park. Sometimes, it's what a resort has to offer itself as daily activities at the resorts are great for downtime or even that occasional non-park day. Consider sleeping arrangements as well as some resorts have different sized beds, which can be a deciding factor.
  • Top activities and attractions – To avoid overwhelming children with options, plan ahead with a list of your family must-dos. This way, you can feel accomplished when you clear your list and still have time to try something new or unexpected. Talk with your family before your trip to get their input as to what they would like to do. This way, everyone has a say in the planning process.

While the best laid plans can give your family an edge toward some great memories, the thing to remember that with every planning tip, there is one that still has its place. That one tip is: be flexible. Sometimes you simply have to roll with what happens right in front of you. After all, you never know what memories and magic are headed your way.

Elizabeth, who posts on our MousePad message board as eabaldwin, has been a Disneyland Annual Passholder since 2010. She and her husband have two daughters, Katie (3) and Josie (14 months). Elizabeth writes:

There are many things to consider when planning a visit to a Disney Park with young children. I think that some initial planning can help a family get the most out of a visit and help maximize the fun for everyone.

  • Basics – Bring snacks and water. Plan a naptime, either in the stroller or hotel room. Check the weather and plan accordingly. Bring sunscreen, just in case. Carry a poncho if visiting the Walt Disney World Resort in the spring or summer. (We learned that the hard way!) A change of clothes wouldn't hurt, in case your child gets wet or dirty. We find our day goes better when everyone is as comfortable as we can get them, usually with full bellies and well rested.
  • Definitely consider your child/children – Consider what they would enjoy when you are planning how you will spend your time at a Disney Park. We have two little girls who love Mickey Mouse and the princesses. On most every trip we make, we need to see Mickey Mouse. We try to visit princesses, but don't always make it to see them. If your child is afraid of the dark, you will probably avoid the dark, “scarier” rides. If your child is really into Cars, then definitely don't miss Cars Land in Disney California Adventure. You know your child best and can help plan a visit based on those likes/dislikes. If you are going for a day or two (or three, etc.), you cannot see and do everything, so pick and choose what sounds most appealing to you and your family.
  • Check out the Disney parks website before you go – Be aware of height restrictions and closures for attractions during your visit. I spent a summer talking up Space Mountain several years ago to my nephew, and when we walked up to it, it was closed for renovation! He was disappointed and I felt a little silly for not researching ahead of time. A height restriction can be a cause of disappointment, but giving a quick look to the website can help you manage your child's expectations.
  • Consider attractions and activities that aren't rides The Disney Parks website has a complete list of attractions, shows, fireworks, etc. Check to see what is going on during your visit. Our kids really enjoy the parades, both Mickey's Soundsational Parade in Disneyland Park and the Pixar Play Parade in Disney California Adventure. Turtle Talk with Crush is a really neat, interactive experience that most young children would enjoy. There is so much more to do at Disney Parks than just rides.
  • Make a dining reservation – If you want to enjoy a meal at a table-service restaurant, or if you want to do a character meal, definitely make a reservation. There might still be a wait for your table, but it might be 15-20 minutes instead of 90 minutes or more. We usually plan one meal each visit (or day) at a table-service restaurant. Don't forget that there are lots of good restaurants in Downtown Disney and the hotels, in addition to the ones in the Parks.

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!



  1. By familymemories

    I completely agree with everything in the article. Getting all your thoughts and plans together months or weeks ahead of time will make a huge difference. You will be able to enjoy the trip better. Thanks for a great article.

  2. By amyuilani

    One thing I always do when I am planning my trip is purchase gift cards well in advance. I may even do this when I am not actively planning a trip but know I want to go sometime during the next year. Having a $25 or $50 gift card already in my possession helps me to decide what it is I really want to do that I had not considered before. For example, I always think about eating at the Blue Bayou when I pass it on Pirates, but reconsider that thought when I look at their menu. If I have a stash of gift cards that I didn't include in my budget, I will think of them as a bonus that I get to apply to a good meal. The same can be said for merchandise; I usually don't think of merchandise because I find that, for the most part, things are the same year in and year out. This time, though, if I see something I really like, I have the bonus money for it. And since gift cards don't expire, there is no pressure to use them all up on food or merch that I don't need or want. I have my bonus for my next trip already started!

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