Disney Planning | How to Plan a Trip to Disney World

Overwhelmed with Disney planning, where to start and what to do? So was I. 

Here is a step by step EASY guide to Disney planning and tips on how to plan a trip to Walt Disney World, Florida.

Mickey and Minnie Mouse at Walt Disney World Parade

Whether you are from the USA, researching from the UK, staying onsite, offsite or booked your trip DIY, this guide will go through each stage so you don’t need to feel overwhelmed or under prepared.

There are many ways to actually book your trip, DIY, package holiday or vacation, to book in advance and utilise the (free) Dining Plan and Memory Maker or to budget and pack sandwiches. (If none of these terms make sense, I’ve a guide to the Disney terminology, just below)

This guide will touch on these options but concentrates on what you need to research and book first.

This post will also detail the best Disney planning websites for you to research your particular interests once you have these basics nailed.

So before we dive in with the actual planning steps, here is a bit of Disney World terminology to help you.

Disney Planning | How to Plan a Trip to Disney World information pin with a photo of Cinderella's Castle at WDW

Disney Planning Terminology

Walt Disney World Parks

There are 6 Walt Disney World Parks: They are Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Epcot and the two water parks Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon.

DIning at be Our Guest, Walt Disney World. The dessert was chip which you can paint with icing.
If you dine at Be Our Guest – it is table service. We were on a Quick Service (counter/self service plan, so paid on top for this evening meal.

Dining Plans & Free Dining

A dining plan is a flat rate that you pay for a meal package which you can use at restaurants at Disney Hotels, Disney Springs, and at Disney Parks. It means that some, all or most of your meals are included, which can help you budget for your trip.

Instead of paying for separate menu items, you pay one daily rate for all the food covered on your plan type. Depending on your circumstances it may work out cheaper for you to include this as part of your Disney package.

The paid for Dining Plans are:

  • Quick Service Dining Plan (QSDP) which is counter or self service meals and snacks.
  • Dining Plan (DP) a mixture of Waiter (Table Service), self service and snacks for guests staying at Deluxe Hotels.
  • Deluxe Dining Plan (DDP) a mixture of Waiter (Table Service), self service and snacks for guests staying at Deluxe Hotels but more are included. This plan is often too much food for the average family.

In order to purchase the Dining Plan, all guests (ages 3 and up) staying in the same room must buy the same version of the Plan. Additionally, all guests must be on the plan for their entire length of stay. You can not, for example, only buy the plan for five nights of a seven night stay.

A great site explaining Dining Plans in more detail and exactly how many snacks, meals, table service credits are provided is on Touring Plans.

Free Dining Plans

Dining plans are offered free as part of your package at various times throughout the year if you meet the criteria. The Free Dining Plan is only available at certain times to encourage you to book your stay in advance, and is for those guests who book to stay onsite at a Disney World hotel (typically 5 days or more for UK guests and 3 days for USA guests) and buy certain park tickets. You can upgrade your Free Dining Plan at a cost.

The plans vary per your hotel choice and will depend on your park ticket type too. You must purchase your park tickets and hotel stay at the same time from the same company.

There are 3 options for Free Dining Plans, depending on your hotel choice, but you can pay extra to upgrade:

  • Free breakfast
  • Quick Service Plan (QS)
  • Disney Dining Plan (DDP)

The Free Breakfast is only for guests staying a select amount of days at Value Resorts; Quick Service (QS) which is counter or self service meals and snacks for guests staying at Moderate resorts, whereas the full Disney Dining Plan is a mixture of Waiter (Table Service), self service and snacks for guests staying at Deluxe Hotels. The table below from Disney explains exactly what you get per day, per person (per child over 3)


Breakfast
Value Hotels
Quick Service Plan
Moderate Hotels
Disney Dining Plan
Deluxe Hotels/Villas
Self ServiceBreakfast2 meals1 Meal
Waiter Servicexx1 Meal
Snacksx2 Snacks2 Snacks
Refillable Mugxyesyes
Speciality Drinksyesyesyes

You can use your free dining from a selection of places to eat throughout Walt Disney World Parks, Disney Resort Hotels and entertainment areas. So not just the hotel you are staying in.

However, if you are eligible for refillable mugs they can only be used at applicable Disney Resorts and NOT at the parks.

Disney Value Hotels

All-Star Movies Resort
All-Star Music Resort
All-Star Sports Resort
Art of Animation Resort
Pop Century Resort

Disney Moderate Hotels

Caribbean Beach Resort
Coronado Springs Resort
Port Orleans Resort – French Quarter
Port Orleans Resort – Riverside
The Cabins at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort

Disney Deluxe Hotels

Animal Kingdom Lodge
Beach Club Resort
Boardwalk Inn
Grand Floridian Resort & Spa
Wilderness Lodge
Yacht Club Resort

Disney Deluxe Villas

Boulder Ridge Villas at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge
Disney’s Animal Kingdom Villas – Kidani Village
Disney’s Beach Club Villas
Disney’s Boardwalk Villas
Old Key West Resort
Riviera Resort
Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa

Dining Reservations

Dining reservations are required for all Table Service restaurants and for some Quick Service restaurants.

All guests (even those staying off-site) can make Disney World dining reservations. Advanced Dining Reservations are available to all guests, regardless of where you’re staying. However, Park admission is required for in-park dining so you must have a valid park ticket.

You can make Disney World dining reservations for your trip from 180 days out.  If you are staying at a Disney Hotel Starting 180 days in advance of your arrival date, you can book dining for the entire length of your Resort stay—up to 10 days.

What this means is guests staying on a Disney property effectively get 190 days to make reservations, rather than 180. A great perk, especially if you work backwards from your last day when you make your reservations to secure the most sort after reservations.  Be sure to sign in to your Disney account to book online or call (407) WDW-DINE or (407) 939-3463.  

So a top tip is even if you are just thinking about a possible trip to Disney World, look to see if free dining is available and when that offer ends.

You can use your Magic Band to enter the park and to access Fast Pass stands, which are poles like this with a Mickey Mouse outline on them.
You can use your Magic Band to enter the park and to access Fast Pass stands, which are poles like this with a Mickey Mouse outline on them.

Disney Fastpass+

FastPass+ (sometimes known as Fast Pass, FP+ or Fastpass) is a reservation system that allows you to book certain rides, character meet-and-greets and shows in advance without having to wait in the longer Standby queue.  

All Disney Fast Passes (Disneyland) and FastPlus+ (Walt Disney World) are free for every guest no matter what park ticket you have or hotel you are staying at and is included with your theme park admission.

A Disney World FastPass+ is used in a different way from the Disneyland Paris and Disneyland California Fast Pass options but it is still a reservation system.

The WDW FastPass+ means via the My Experience App, you can reserve your place on some of the must-do attractions and experiences before you leave home, from 60 days if you are staying onsite at a Disney Hotel and up to 30 days in advance if staying off site.

seelcting a fast pass Plus option  at Disney World
The app is simple to use to choose your fast pass+

Ride Tiers

You can initially book 3 FP+ per day in advance, depending on the tier of the ride. Popular rides are usually Tier 1 meaning you can choose 1 Tier one ride and 2 Tier two rides.

A Tier One ride is the most popular and currently you can choose only choose 1 tier ride as part of your first block of 3 fast passes. Magic Kingdom does not have any tiers for any of the rides, but Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom and Epcot do,

Once you have redeemed your initial set of 3 FastPass+ selections (or the last arrival window has passed), you can make another FastPass+ selection for the same day at an in-park kiosk, via your Disney Hotel concierge or by using your mobile device, up to park closing.

After you redeem the additional FastPass+ pick, you can return to a kiosk or the app to make more selections (one at a time).

Once at the park, you can check your FP+ time and head straight to the FP+ queue rather than the Standby queue.

If you do not secure the FP+ that you want, keep trying daily before you arrive and when at the park too. Friends on the same trip secured Avatar Flight Of Passage Fast Passes on the same day by continually checking.

Using the Memory Maker at Hollywood Studios
Using the Memory Maker at Hollywood Studios – means I get to be in the photo too!

Memory Maker Photo Pass

Disney Photo Pass photographers take your photo whenever you want at select locations. This is chargeable for a one off fee unless it is available for free with special offers. You can enjoy an unlimited amount of downloads including videos and ‘magic’ shots – where some magic enhancements are made to your photos.

Memory Maker is often included free with certain ticket types, including Ultimate tickets where your park ticket is a minimum of 7 days and allows access to all six Disney Parks. (The six Disney Parks are: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Typhoon Lagoon, Blizzard beach Plus Disneys Oak Tree Golf Course.) Otherwise a charge is applicable.

Magic Bands or Cards

Magic Bands and cards are a secure all in one device that give you access to all your plans on MyDisneyExperience.co.uk or https://disneyworld.disney.go.com. A magic band fits on your wrist like a bracelet.

Use them to enter the Disney Parks (with valid admission) and check in at Disney FastPass+ entrances.

Your magic band also acts as your hotel room key and you can use it to purchase food and merchandise. It also acts as a tracker – handy if you lose your child!

If you have booked a package at a Disney Resort with tickets, you are given complementary magic bands – there a selection of colours to choose from. If you are offsite you can purchase magic bands or use your ticket/card in the park.

What we did: We were given magic bands with our hotel package, and found them really handy for just zapping at FastPasses entrances and Photo opportunities, without having to forage for our tickets and risk losing them.

Extra Magic Hours

Extra Magic Hours are when some parks open earlier/ close later for guests staying at onsite hotels. Check your app to see which parks offer this, as dates and times do vary.

How to Plan a Trip to Disney World – Step By Step

You’ve got your tickets, know the lingo and Disney terminology, booked the flight and the hotel but what next?

Research! Regardless if you have a dining plan or not, before 180 days out, (or 190 if you are staying onsite), research which restaurants / character dining experiences you would like. 

For some dining experiences, you may need to pay up front if you are not on a Full Disney Dining Plan  e.g Cinderella’s Royal Table.  (At Cinderella’s Royal Table we met Cinderella, Ariel, Jasmine, Snow White and Aurora- Sleeping Beauty. All the girls including grown up received fairy wands and the boys received swords.)

What we did: We had the Quick Service Dining Plan and usually had a QS breakfast at Spy Glass in our Caribbean Beach Resort Hotel and paid extra for; Cinderella’s Royal Table Breakfast at the park, Be Our Guest Dinner (both at Magic Kingdom) and lunch at Sanaa at Animal Kingdom Lodge on our final day.

Make a note of where your preferred restaurants are located in the park and how easy they are to get to from your hotel if plans change.

On a dining plan? As a general rule, you do not normally need to make a reservation on a Quick Service (QS) plan as it is self service/counter service.

However, if you are QS only, Be Our Guest (BOG) allows advance dining for breakfast and lunch only. (Note, at those times it is NOT a character experience and there is no Belle or Beast) The Beast is available at dinner only at Be Our Guest.

TOP TIP: If you are staying on site at a Disney Hotel, work your way through your dates backwards from your last day, as you have more chance to secure the reservations at the times you want if you start on your last day and work towards arrival date.

Keep researching and decide which parks you want to do on which days. Do not worry too much about the weather. It rains but passes quickly.

Check if there are any special events on like Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party (MNSSHP) as Magic Kingdom (MK) closes earlier at 6pm for those without these additional Halloween tickets. (Dates for this begin in August (!) through to November 1st.)

When the MNSSHP runs, the normal fireworks do not, so if you really want to see the regular fireworks, you will need to check the app to see when the Halloween party is on.

Check when there are extra magic hours, early entrance etc. Check if an American holiday like Presidents’ Day in February or Fall Break as parks are likely to be busier on those days.

Early Magic Hours mean on site hotel guests can arrive at a park usually an hour before everyone else.

180 days out from your Disney trip? Now it is time to book those dining experiences but keep in mind the days/times you are visiting each park and the area of the park you will potentially be in before that meal.

From experience, if you are spending full days at the parks, the heat will make it unlikely that you will crave a huge sit down meal in the middle of the day – although you may welcome the respite and the cool air conditioning!

Phew, you now have meals booked and park days decided!

Now, it is time to check the height of your kids and look at the rides, experiences, shows and meet and greets that you would like to do. Just make a wish list at this point and jot down which land they are in. Lots of people just head to the rides but do look at some of the shows as they are incredible.

There is a policy in place called Rider Switch (Child Swap at Universal) which means if a child is too small or doesn’t want to ride, one adult can wait with them in an area, whilst the other family members go on the ride, then the parents ‘swap’ places, so the other parent can have a turn of the ride.

Once at the attraction, approach the greeting Cast Member with your entire party. At least one adult member of your party and the Guests who are not riding will be issued a Ride Switch entitlement by the Cast Member and asked to wait in a designated area (usually outside of the attraction).

Look and print out a map of each Disney World park and write down your top 3 preferred rides for each and check their proximity from each other.

Our rookie mistake was this! It was not ideal to have to rush from one end of the park to the other, especially in the heat or a sudden downpour with young kids!

Next check what tier each ride is in. A Tier One ride is the most popular and currently you can choose only choose 1 tier ride as part of your first block of 3 Fast Passes.

Magic Kingdom is the only Disney Park which has no tiers, so you can choose any three for your initial Fast Passes.

Top Tip: Try and book morning fast passes with rides close in proximity to each other. Once all three are used you can pick more. 

If you are staying at a Disney onsite hotel, you can book your fast passes 60 days before your visit. Like the dining booking, you can work backwards to your arrival date, so you have more chances of securing the fast passes at the times you want. If you are staying off site you can choose fast passes 30 days before. Whichever the case, decide before 30/60 days which ones you would like to do.

If you are staying in an onsite hotel then at 60 days out you can book fast passes for the duration of your tickets, if off site then at 30 days. In the USA system opens at 7am for U.K. this 12 or 1pm depending on time difference.

Do not panic if the Disney App won’t let you book Fast Passes for all of your party members in a group immediately- sometimes it can take about 15 minutes for the system to recognise all the group.

Our top tip for this scenerio is even if you are travelling with different families, get one person to book for all. You can however have more than one person logged in to the same account so you can divide and conquer! 

If you don’t get all the Fast passes you want – don’t despair. Keep checking. People are continually updating, changing plans so you can keep checking every day before you go and once at the park. 

Top Tip: If you can’t get the entire party on a fast pass, grab which ones you can and then click edit and try add more on that way. Another tip, rather than just select morning, afternoon or evening, scroll further across to the right and select the time you ideally want – sometimes these options don’t show if you just select morning, afternoon or evening.

Don’t feel you need to plan everything. Weather may cause a ride to stop, or you meet a character along the way, or decide to eat at a different time, or simply get too tired or too hot! Go with the flow – you will have a magical time regardless if you bagged that fast pass or not.

If you are desperate to go on a ride – check out the single rider queues. You are unlikely to be sat together, so this won’t work for Rider Switch or if the kids are too small for the ride.

Useful Disney Planning Websites

What we booked: We booked our holiday via Virgin Holidays a year in advance which included a 7 night onsite stay at the Caribbean Beach Resort hotel, included the Free Quick Service (QS) were on site, the photo Memory Maker, plus 14 days for the price of 7 day tickets to Disney and Universal & Magic Bands. 

Disney Planning | How to Plan a Trip to Disney World information pin with a photo of Cinderella's Castle at WDW
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Please let me know if this post has helped you or if I can add more for the planning your Disney trip stages? I will be writing various posts on each park, FastPass tips, and much more. Look here for other tips of what to do in Orlando besides Disney too! It’s not just the parks to see.

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