Disney Planning | How to Plan a Trip to Disney World
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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.
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 ( still no sign of this free perk returning) 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 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. Usually only one water park is open at a time, but occasionally both will be open.)
Dining Plans & Free Dining – Currently Not Available
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 – EDIT Currently not available and these may not come back.. However there are offers with a set amount off your dining depending on your package and hotel chosen
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)
|Quick Service Plan |
|Disney Dining Plan|
|Self Service||Breakfast||2 meals||1 Meal|
|Waiter Service||x||x||1 Meal|
|Snacks||x||2 Snacks||2 Snacks|
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
Grand Floridian Resort & Spa
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
Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa
Dining reservations are required for all Table Service restaurants and for some Quick Service restaurants. Advance Dining Reservations or `ADR’ is the terminology often used.
All guests (even those staying off-site) can make Disney World dining reservations from 60 days. 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 60 days out. If you are staying at a Disney Hotel Starting 60 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 70 days to make reservations, rather than 60. 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 any dining offers are available and when that offer ends.
Disney Genie and Genie Plus+
Genie is FREE smart app trip-planning capability that maps out a personalized itinerary based on which rides, attractions, meet and greets, shows, food and entertainment experiences guests want to make sure to do while at the parks.
Genie is free for every guest no matter what park ticket you have.
Genie PLUS is a paid for service that will get you on rides more quickly via the newly named Lightning Lanes and jump the queue. At Walt Disney World, Genie Plus is $15 + tax per person per day to access 46 Lightning Lanes across its four parks. There is no more free Fast Pass.
Lightning Lane Options
Lightning Lane with paid for Genie+
Purchasing Genie Plus for $15 per day, per person, means you can select arrival windows for Lightning Lane entrances that are available at more than 40 attractions and entertainment across all 4 theme parks.
Individual Lightning Lane Selections
For some of the most popular attractions, Lightning Lane entry will be available for purchase individually. Guests may purchase and select an arrival window one at a time for up to 2 attractions total per day. T hose reservations must be at different attractions. This option will be available for all Guests with or without Disney Genie+ service.
However onsite guests can access from 7am, whereas offsite guests can only book from when the park opens. The prices vary on the day depending on how popular the ride is and how the capacity is. Currently prices are ranging from $7 – $15 with Rise of the Resistance Star Wars Ride in Hollywood Studios the most expensive. The rides accessible to individual Lightning Lane selections are below:
Individual Lightning Lane rides at each park
Magic Kingdom Park
- Seven Dwarfs Mine Train
- Space Mountain
- Frozen Ever After
- Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure
Disney’s Hollywood Studios
- Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway
- Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance
Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park
- Avatar Flight of Passage
- Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain
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!
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 (this isn’t available now), 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 60 days out, (or 70 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.
60 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 2 preferred rides for each person and check their proximity from each other. Decide if you want to pay extra for Genie Plus or go for individual Lightning Lane passes. This way you have a clear plan to make everyone happy and hopefully all go on a ride that was on your must do list.
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 rides have Lightning Pass tier each ride is in. This is you backup plan on the day. However, they can sell out and remember onsite guests have the advantage with being able to book from 7am, leaving only later slots available.
Top Tip: You can only book one Lightning Lane at a time on with Genie+ or Individual Lightning Lane. HOWEVER, No matter what window you select for an attraction’s Lightning Lane, you will be able to book another Lightning Lane selection after using the first or after the window expires, 2 hours after park open, or 2 hours after booking a selection. It needs to be after 120 minutes. The earlier you book them, the more you can fit in.
Individually purchased Lightning Lane selections cannot be canceled but Lightning Lane selections you made with Genie+ can
If you don’t get all the Lightning Lane 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.
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
- Official Disney Site
- The Dibb – A Disney Forum for Brits
- Dis Boards – A site for all things Disney, worldwide
- WDW Prep School – A site for just Walt Disney World Planning
- Mouse Hacking
- Mouse Savers
Want to visit Disney from your cruise ship?
Cruising is a very popular way to visit Orlando, with multiple ports and fabulous destinations along the way. You can even visit Disney from Port Canaveral! This guide to visiting Disney will help!
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.
Planning once you get to Walt Disney World.
Once you get to your hotel and before you head to the parks, you still need to plan. Have a look at my planning tips for when you get there to enhance the magic, make the most of your trip and with some budgets saving ideas too!
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.