Top 3 Tips for Walt Disney World Planning

by Donna Fesel, contributing writer

This summer, we did not go to Walt Disney World. We have been going to WDW every summer for years, and this July, we went somewhere else. We had been saving up for ages, and went to Europe. Mickey Mouse was not in attendance (I couldn't talk my Disneyed-out spouse into Disneyland Paris), and we had a fantastic time, but I still found myself thinking about WDW. Why, in Barcelona, and at the Louvre was I thinking about WDW? Why, when I am getting up to go to a busy beach with family on Long Island am I thinking about WDW? Why, when it is a friend's birthday and I want to take him or her to a favorite restaurant, am I thinking about WDW? I discussed this phenomenon with my husband, and I think I've figured it out.

Like many other destinations, Walt Disney World is very popular and crowded routinely; like many special things we plan, we have invested time from our busy lives; ;and like a lot of favorite places, WDW is full of sentimental value I don't want to spoil. WDW is getting increasingly expensive, so I developed a set of rules for visiting that I realize I apply to almost every day trip, family outing, or important dinner in my life.

I've been to WDW many times over the years, and I feel that each time I visit, I get a little "better" at visiting WDW; I learn a little something about visiting a particular attraction, or I find something off the beaten path to do, or I talk to a cast member and learn something that enhances my visit. For my next trip to WDW I am armed with more information, my planning is a little easier, and things go more smoothly.

I want to share with you my time honed top three for planning my family's trip to Walt Disney World. These ideas have spilled way over into all the rest of planning I do for my family.

Number One – Take a Daily Break

My family takes a break from the theme parks every day we visit WDW. This rule evolved pretty quickly for my family. On my second trip to WDW, and my first with my now husband, I was so excited to share WDW with him that I had him up at the crack of dawn and going virtually non-stop until we collapsed in bed after visiting what was then Pleasure Island (now Disney Springs). By the last day of our visit, we were so completely exhausted and drained, we determined that our next trip would need to include some down time.

Our very next trip was with our now 11-year-old son when he was three. Mindful of my son's naptime needs, we'd leave the WDW theme park we were in every day to return to our hotel and rest. We'd nap, go to the pool, play cards in our room, anything that didn't mean hustle and bustle. It made a world of difference in how we felt, our patience level, and how uncomfortable the weather seemed. Later in the day, rested and refreshed, we'd move on to our WDW evening activities, which sometimes meant returning to a theme park for fireworks, or venturing to the stores at Downtown Disney (now also part of Disney Springs).

A massage at one of the resort spas is a great way to recharge. Photo by Donna Fesel.

I know that not everyone is staying close enough to the theme parks when they visit WDW, but even if it is a rare trip to WDW you've saved so hard for—take some sort of break during the day. Step out of the blazing sun and take a ride on Spaceship Earth (it's a long ride and is dark and cool—perfect for a breather) or hop the monorail at Magic Kingdom and grab a quick bite at one of the monorail resort quick service locations (did you know that Contempo Café at Disney's Contemporary Resort has delicious flatbreads that are perfect for sharing); just do anything that gives you a minute of peace and space to breathe.

My family does this all the time in our non-WDW lives. Busy museum in New York City? We'll be sure to find an outdoor park or courtyard to catch our breath and recharge before heading back to the craziness. A family vacation with extended family? I try to set aside a bit of time to go for a walk, enjoy wherever we are and relax. In terms of WDW, this has evolved into an entire non-theme park day for trips that are a week. We rent a car and go to Tampa, or we hang out at our hotel pool during the day and then mini golf at night. Try it. Five minutes after exiting the last ride you waited on for an hour in the Florida sun, step into a quiet, cool area and it will change your day.

My son and husband enjoy parasailing near Disney's Contemporary Resort. Photo by Donna Fesel.

Epcot's American Adventure gives my son and I an air conditioned break on a cool attraction. Photo by Donna Fesel.

Number Two – Get Up Early

I hear some of you groaning already… are you nuts? It's vacation. Yes, I am serious and a bit nuts. I will confess I am a bit of a morning person, so that makes it easier for me to rise at 6 a.m. to see the rope drop show at Disney's Magic Kingdom. Yet, my husband who is not a morning person, has conceded the reality that getting up early in the day on vacation, for family outings, to go the beach, to go hiking, rules.

Make your Fastpass reservation as soon as you can to enjoy rides like Soarin' that can have long lines. Photo by Donna Fesel.

There are two reasons: first, the weather is usually better in the morning. In central Florida, where WDW is, it is very hot in the summer when we typically visit. Morning tends to be cooler, and more stable rain-wise. We find this is true of any activities in the summer that are outdoors. Even if you think you don't mind heat – several hours into waiting to ride Space Mountain, or complete a hike on your local hiking trail that is challenging, you will be wishing you began your day sooner.

An early arrival at Disney's Magic Kingdom is a great opportunity for family photos. Photo by Donna Fesel

The second reason is obvious. If you are resisting getting up early to do things during your free time, THAT is why it is good to do it—all that resistance means it is less crowded, and usually much less crowded. Want to ride Splash Mountain several times in a row with hardly a wait and no Fastpass? Get there at rope drop and proceed directly. Want to find that prime space to put down your beach blanket so you are near the water (restrooms, snack stand et al.) when you visit that popular local beach near you? Get there early. If you want a shorter wait on line for things, get there at opening. Fewer ;people jostling and less time on line equals a better experience.

Up in the air, scenic parasailing is made possible by researching and reserving in advance at WDW. Photo by Donna Fesel.

Number Three – Plan Ahead

Plan like it is going out of style. For WDW, know your booking windows for resorts (the timelines for the Disney Vacation Club – Disney's timeshare program I belong to are very specific), Advance Dining Reservations (ADRs), Fastpass, recreation activities and tours, spa reservations—all of it. Then, calendar it. If you are confused about when you can book (sometimes booking ADRs when you are staying on versus off property can be confusing) call and ask. Go online, find the correct contact number and ask when you can book. While on the phone with the appropriate Disney cast member ask every question you have—they have heard them all, and as we were all told in school, there are no dumb questions.

If you are not sure where you go to board Ferrytale Wishes: A Dessert Cruise, ask (it's the Transportation and Ticket Center by the way). If you don't know what kind of shoes you can wear on the Wild Africa Trek at Disney's Animal Kingdom, ask (Closed toe with a strap to keep them on). Which discounts apply to the restaurant you will be dining at? Ask. If you ask before you have to book, you are forearmed. Did you know that nearly everything you need to know about WDW is probably posted somewhere online? Times for fireworks, parades, virtually every daily event at the theme parks is posted on the WDW website. What free movies are showing at your Disney Resort? It's posted online. Reviews, menus, lengths of rides, it's online somewhere.

Want a photo op like this one of my son at Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue? Figure out the transportation and buy your tickets in advance. Photo by Donna Fesel.

Figure out what transportation you'll need to get to where you're going at WDW. For example, did you know that to get from Epcot to Disney's Hollywood Studios you can walk? Go out the resort exit near World Showcase, and take the entirely manageable path. Did you know there is no bus that goes directly from Epcot to Animal Kingdom? You have to go to someplace both of those buses stop—like any resort—and take two buses. Parking your car at Magic Kingdom means parking at the Transportation and Ticket Center, and then taking one of the available methods of transport to the gate. Remember that all of these forms of transportation take time, so plan for and leave that time to get to where you are going.

For example, on that same first trip to WDW with my now spouse, we misread our information for the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue and went to Disney's Wilderness Lodge, instead of going to Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground. The nice folks at Wilderness Lodge redirected us. After another boat ride, and bus ride later we made the show. Had we not allotted plenty of time we would have been really late. I've found that taking the extra few minutes to figure it out really benefits my experience. For example for our upcoming trip, I learned that the free valet parking I get with Disney's Tables in Wonderland dining discount card lets me use the valet at Disney Springs gratis if I eat at Morimoto Asia.

I have so many examples of how the advance planning things helps my life work better. If I have ten minutes to grab food between my son's activities, I try to know what's nearby that is open and fast. Visiting Alcatraz on your trip to San Francisco? (which is amazing, by the way). Please know that you have to get to Alcatraz by ferry and that those tickets sell out quickly. Know that the favorite restaurant your best friend is desperate to eat at takes reservations online two months in advance. Know when you are travelling to the Amtrak station in Buffalo, New York for work that there are two different stations in Buffalo. This, is something I learned the hard way recently when travelling for work; the next week when I made the same trip, I ended up in the right spot.

My son enjoys a Pirate Adventure Cruise at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa. We arrived in time because we figured out where the cruise left from in advance. Photo by Donna Fesel.

Want to eat at Le Cellier at Epcot's Canada Pavillion? You need to plan ahead. Photo by Donna Fesel.

The delicious steak you won't be eating at Le Cellier if you don't make your ADR. Photo by Donna Fesel.

Want to eat this delicious lobster at Narcoosee's at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa? Call to ask if it's on the menu and make your ADR. Photo by Donna Fesel.

Want to enjoy Walt Disney World's Electrical Water Pageant while you dine at Narcoosee's? Check the WDW homepage for times and make your ADR. Photo by Donna Fesel.

In the end, we are all busy working, taking care of our families, pets, homes, extended families. Our time has real value to us, and that time to reconnect with my loved ones and myself, is so important to keep the engine moving in my life. I hope some of these tips are helpful and assist you in those endeavors. Have a favorite Disney visit tip? Please share with all of us.



  1. By jms1969

    Nice article for those fairly new to WDW - all three pieces of advice are exactly what we tell friends who come to us looking for tips for WDW. I always add one more piece of advice, with two parts - if at all possible financially, always stay on site and have a vehicle available for as much of your stay as possible. Staying onsite usually isn't that much more for the room itself vs. hotels outside the parks, and it makes the other three pieces of advice you give much more possible (breaks are much easier, getting to the parks early requires much less effort, and you have advantages to your planning in that you have access to opportunities others do not). We've always found that much of the difference in costs onsite vs. offsite can be avoided by not being "trapped" on WDW property. A couple trips to the grocery store for breakfast items and other basic necessities, as well as an occasional cheaper meal offsite, can go a long way to bring down the cost of a WDW vacation. In addition to saving money, having a vehicle also opens up the possibility of visiting other area attractions to add a bit of variety to a vacation.

  2. By Yoshi012

    Thanks for the nice words. While we typically stay onsite - with DVC, we have many friends who are trying to save money by staying offsite. People are able to get huge spaces with tons of amenities - at a price that cannot be beat by WDW - huge homes with private pools, enormous condo rentals. So while onsite, works for me - in my chats with friends who stay offsite, I've found that has great merits too - some of those places are amazing, and people are willing to lose a bit of convenience to have the amenities. As for the car thing - normally, I drive or rent something, because I've been to WDW a decent amount, that I want to go offsite to see family in the area, or sight see elsewhere. But I've found for first time WDW'ers, or those who visit sparingly, folks for convenience, and saving money like to take the free Disney's Magical Express transport from the Orlando airport - they plan to stay at WDW the entire trip. Also, people will do Garden Grocer for breakfast and snack foods - they deliver - and while it is slightly more expensive for the groceries themselves, the bit of additional cost is outweighed by convenience. I have a 5 day trip to WDW coming up, and am renting a car - I'm still getting supplies from Garden Grocer - since I don't want to miss a minute of the magic. Love the input though - like all vacations, going to WDW is so individualized, and there is so much to figure out - every bit of insight from all of us helps people enjoy their trips! Thanks again for commenting - Donna

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