The most family-friendly place in the world can be found none other than Orlando, Florida at Disney World. Catch some thrills on new rides, meet your favorite characters, and snack on Dole Whips or Mickey Pops throughout the parks. There’s a reason why it’s called the most magical place on earth.
When it comes to a Disney vacation, a little planning can go a long way toward making the trip memorable. Disney vacations have a special magic about them—a magic your kids will long remember, even after you’ve returned home.
Book your stay
The first step when it comes to planning your trip is locking down your hotel or resort in Orlando. Disney owns 27 resort hotels ranging from the affordable All Star or Pop Century to luxurious villas at The Grand Floridian. Each property has a completely different theme, which can make your stay extra-memorable, whether that’s watching the hula performances at the Polynesian or square dancing around the Whispering Canyon Cafe at Wilderness Lodge. If you plan to stay on-property, be sure to book at least six months in advance. School vacation dates often book up closer to a year in advance.
Staying on-property has several distinct advantages, but the biggest is transportation. Disney maintains a huge network of bus, monorail, and boat transportation between the various resorts and the parks. It can be a huge time saver compared to parking. The parking lots are massive and can be very far from park entrances.
Disney rewards those who stay on-property as well with special perks like Extra Magic Hours, where the park opens early or stays open late for those on-property. Extra Magic Hours can be a great way to ride the biggest attractions without the lines! You’ll also be able to book your dining reservations (and have access to the Disney Dining Plan) and get your Fastpasses earlier as well, both important pieces of a great trip.
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On-property resorts can be pricey, though, and it can be difficult to find ways to get to other Orlando attractions like SeaWorld or Universal Studios. You have to choose what you care about most—if the kids MUST go see Harry Potter world, then you might be better off renting a car and staying off-property; if you plan on focusing your trip on Disney, the advantages of staying on-property definitely outweigh the costs.
Plan your meals
Just like the range of property options for your stay, Disney offers a wide variety of dining options for any budget and menu choices that should please even the pickiest little ones. Reservations can be made up to 180 days in advance and if you have strong preferences for restaurants or times, you should try and book as close to that day as possible, especially if you have a large party.
Disney divides its restaurants into two types: table-service and quick-service. At table-service (sit-down) restaurants, it should take about an hour for your meal; longer if you choose to have appetizers and dessert. Like the resorts, every restaurant at Disney is themed, which makes dining about more than the food. You can dine in an old-fashioned drive-in movie theater (complete with car, movie, and waitresses on skates) at the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater, roar through the jungle at Rainforest Café, or step into a Mexican fiesta at twilight at the San Angel Inn.
If you’re looking to stick to a budget, you have a few choices. Disney doesn’t stop you from bringing your own food or water into the parks. Quick-service meals also tend to be cheaper and don’t require a reservation.
The second and quite popular option is to go with the Disney Dining Plan. This is only available for those staying on-property, and gives you a set structure for your meals. The base level plan includes one table-service meal, one quick-service meal, and one snack per day, with the composition of the meal already set for you. You still need to make reservations for table service restaurants, but if you don’t want to think about food—or you’ve got a very hungry family—the dining plan is a great option.
There’s more than just the parks for food, too. Disney Springs (formerly called Downtown Disney) has been completely renovated with brand-new restaurants, shops, and live music to enjoy. It’s free to enter (though you may leave laden down with souvenirs to bring home!) and offers a similar variety of restaurant choices from Wolfgang Puck’s to the Hangar Bar from Indiana Jones.
Choose your parks
Now: the fun part. You can purchase park tickets as late as the day you’d like to go. If you’re staying on property, a Magic Band combines your hotel key, park ticket, Fastpasses, and credit card in one wristband, which is way more convenient! Each park has a slightly different flavor, attractions, and characters, but all are great for kids (and adults) of any age. It breaks down like this:
The park is split into different “lands,” Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Adventureland, Frontierland, and Main Street U.S.A. Each “land” has a different theme. The three ‘mountains’ are the hottest attractions (Space Mountain in Tommorrowland, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Splash Mountain in Frontierland). Newer attractions like the Dwarf Mine Train and Little Mermaid, as well as oldies but goodies like the Haunted Mansion and Jungle Cruise, make this park THE quintessential Disney park.
This park takes you into the world of movies with the Tower of Terror from the Twilight Zone and action-packed shows like Indiana Jones’ Stunt Spectacular. Currently under construction is an entire new section devoted entirely to Star Wars.
This park-zoo hybrid is a great way experience the Jungle Book with monkeys, tigers, and zebras at various attractions like the Kilimanjaro Safari or the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail. Animal Kingdom is divided by continent; head to Asia for its biggest attraction, Expedition Everest.
Standing for “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow,” Epcot is split into two sections: FutureWorld and the World Showcase. Learn all about scientific exploration at The Universe of Energy or Spaceship Earth, or take a long walk around the World Showcase and dive into other cultures. You can taste yummy croissants in France, watch acrobatics in China, or re-live the world of Frozen in Norway.
When choosing your parks, think about adding a park hopper option to your ticket, which adds an additional $40–$101 depending on number of days but allows you to go to multiple parks each day. It’s a great way to mix up your day or give yourself a break in the middle. Getting a park hopper also gives you more flexibility with your dining schedule, especially if you can’t get in to restaurants for lunch and dinner at the same park.
If you’re looking for the right formula for a meltdown-free vacation, we recommend heading to the park early for Extra Magic Hours, having a sit-down lunch (air conditioning is key here), and then heading back to the hotel or resort for a few hours of napping, quiet time, or playing by the pool. Then, once everyone has rested, head back out to the parks around 4 pm for dinner and the early fireworks.
Structure your day
While at the parks, one thing that makes your day much easier is Fastpass +, which allows you to skip the main lines at all major attractions, including character visits and shows. If you’ve been to Disney before, though, this has recently changed significantly.
Fastpass + works just as the old Fastpass system did, allowing you to bypass long lines at specific times of day. Now, however, you must book your Fastpasses ahead of time (up to 60 days out if you’re staying on property, 30 days out if you’re not) and you’re only allowed three passes per day in one park. After you use all three, you can get one at a time, but it can be pretty slim pickings by then. Each Fastpass is only for a one hour block of time and you must present yourself at the Fastpass line during that hour, or you lose the Fastpass.
This should encourage you to plan out your whole day ahead of time, but it doesn’t leave a lot of room for spontaneity. If you do buy tickets the day you go, you’ll only have what’s left of Fastpasses for the day, which may not allow you to ride everything you wish without long waits (especially for brand new rides like Frozen at Epcot, the Mine Train at Magic Kingdom, and water-based rides like Kali River Rapids at Animal Kingdom on hot days).
Fastpasses are also stored on your Magic Bands, if you choose to wear one, making it easy to use. Download the Disney app to keep your whole itinerary on your phone, including dining reservations and accommodations, so you can keep track of when you’re supposed to be where.
Make the trip extra magical
There are plenty of ways to make your trip extra magical. Disney holds special events, parties, and other spectacles throughout the year that you won’t want to miss. This includes month-long festivals such as the Flower Festival in the spring or the Food & Wine festival in the fall, as well as holiday-themed events where you can trick or treat in the park for Halloween (in costume, of course) or go on an Easter egg hunt.
In addition to holiday events, you can get active with runDisney races—5k, 10k, half marathon, marathon, or all of them in successive days throughout the parks. Or you can experience a full princess makeover at one of the Cinderella boutiques.
Throughout the year, various parades, fireworks, and special events occur in the parks. You can sign up for special Dessert + Fireworks packages with prime viewing locations or experience the fun of brand new shows such as Awaken Summer in Animal Kingdom, now open at night for the first time ever.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Walt Disney World Guide