Planning a Disney World vacation can seem like a daunting task, but for the type-A planner, it is a color-coded dream come true.
Maybe you’re the family’s go-to Disney World planner, with a carefully-crafted master plan for each and every visit. Or, maybe this is your first time planning a trip to the parks, and you’re ready to rise to the occasion. Either way, you’ll want to make sure you check the boxes of this step-by-step type-A guide to Disney World, especially given everything that has changed in the parks since 2020.
How Far in Advance Can You Book a Disney World Vacation?
While some of us wish we could book the next ten years of Disney World vacations, we’re restricted to specific booking windows for our hotels, park tickets, and flights. In general, Disney releases the following year’s dates in early summer—so if you want to travel in December of next year, you may be able to book those dates as far out as approximately 18 months.
With that in mind, the first decision you’ll need to make in your master Disney World plan is when you want to visit. Consider certain factors like weather (Florida has very hot summers but can be quite comfortable in the winter months), crowds (popular school break seasons like summer and the holidays are bustling), and your family calendar. If you’re able to travel during the off-season (though there’s no guarantee, Disney’s off-season typically includes the months of January, February, May, and September through early November), not only can you potentially avoid major crowds, but you may be able to save on your flights and hotel.
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The last thing you’ll need to decide early on is whether you’ll fly or drive to Disney World. This decision doesn’t need to be made immediately, but it should be a factor when considering your travel dates. For example, driving may add to the number of days you’ll need to take off from work. Also, the cost and time benefit to driving and flying may impact your overall vacation budget and itinerary.
Book Your Hotel Accommodations
You’ve picked the dates you want to visit Disney World, now what? Perhaps the biggest (and most exciting) step in the process is actually booking the trip itself! This comes in the form of booking your hotel accommodations as well as purchasing your theme park admission.
Lay out which parks you intend on visiting on which days if you want to add the Park Hopper option to your park tickets, which rides you may want to prioritize, and where you think you’ll want to dine.
If you want to go all-out and essentially live in the Disney World “bubble,” then you’ll want to book a Disney-owned resort hotel located on Disney World property. Disney owns dozens of hotels at various price points (categorized as “Value,” “Moderate,” and “Deluxe”), each offering different benefits and perks as well as various proximities to the park.
As a quick example, if it’s important to your family to be as close to Magic Kingdom as possible, you may want to consider the resorts along the Monorail loop: Disney’s Contemporary Resort, Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, and Disney’s Polynesian Resort. But, these three hotels are at the top of the price range and farther away from the other three theme parks. So, there are pros and cons to consider with every hotel!
If it’s not as important to stay at a Disney World property, there are plenty of off-property accommodations to look into. As a major tourist destination, Orlando is filled with resort hotel options and vacation home rentals.
Make Your Park Pass Reservations & Build Your Daily Itinerary
Before 2020, a purchased theme park ticket was all someone needed to enter Disney World’s four theme parks. Nowadays, however, you must also book a Park Pass Reservation (at no extra cost) for every day you wish to visit the parks.
For example, if you purchased a 4-day park ticket, you must book four separate reservations for each day. Are you Park Hopping between the parks each day? You’ll only need to book a reservation for the first park you plan on visiting that day. Subsequent theme parks after your first scan-in do not require their own reservation.
This phase in your planning is when you’ll want to make a daily itinerary for the parks (this is where your fun color-coded spreadsheets come in handy). Lay out which parks you intend on visiting on which days if you want to add the Park Hopper option to your park tickets, which rides you may want to prioritize, and where you think you’ll want to dine.
60 Days Prior to Arrival: Book Dining Reservations
Speaking of dining, booking your restaurant reservations is a major step in the planning process. Not only are the logistics important to figure out, but simply deciding where to eat can be a time-consuming, albeit exciting, step.
Previously, guests could book their dining reservations 180 days in advance. Nowadays, that booking window is only 60 days in advance. So, get ready to set your alarms 60 days before your arrival because those dining reservations open early (typically around 6 a.m. EST each morning, but it could be a bit sooner—start checking around 5:30 a.m. for best availability). If you’re staying on Disney World property, you’ll be able to book dining reservations for the entire length of your stay (or up to 10 days, whichever is shorter).
Some Disney World restaurants are more popular than others, so you’ll want to have a strategy going into your booking period. Character dining can generally fill up quickly, especially in and around Magic Kingdom (Cinderella’s Royal Table and ‘Ohana are two good examples). Newer restaurants like Space 220 in EPCOT might also be a trickier reservation to grab, so be sure to prioritize those if you know you want to dine there.
Can’t get the reservation you want? Keep checking! Plans change all the time, and you may find a last-minute reservation or two open up. Also, consider which restaurants have lounge areas that don’t require advance reservations. My Disney Experience, Disney World’s smartphone app, now shows walk-up availability for restaurants as well once you’re in the parks to help with last-minute dining plans.
Putting Together the Final Details
As you eagerly count down the days to your Disney World vacation, there are a few key details you’ll want to pin down before leaving home. For example, you’ll want to confirm your ground transportation if you’re flying into Orlando International Airport and you choose not to rent a car. There are taxi services and rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft, or you can reserve a charter bus like Mears Connect or The Sunshine Flyer.
Now is a good time to decide if there are any magical “extras” you want to incorporate into your itinerary, such as a walking tour or any recreational activities. Disney World is filled with more things to do and see than just the four theme parks, so search around and see if your family would be up for a behind-the-scenes tour at Animal Kingdom, a boat rental, or a round of miniature golf.
The final step would be to pack your bags! Before you know it, you’ll be off to Disney World with your carefully-planned, color-coded itinerary. Make sure to have a realistic battle plan and leave some wiggle room when plans inevitably need to be adjusted.