I never fancied myself a Disney fangirl until about one year ago when I took my almost-two-year-old to Disney World in early December to experience all four parks (Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios) during the holiday season. There’s something about experiencing the parks through the eyes of a child with their limitless imaginations that makes the magic really come alive. I had
been to Disney World three times before this. Each time was fun as well, but nothing compared to this trip. It wasn’t only the fact that we had a little one to reveal the true wonders to us; it was the fact that I took the time to really plan the vacation out. I researched, made reservations, and loaded our FastPasses+, etc. so that we could really enjoy the experience when we got to the parks. I know this for a fact…because, we had taken her to the Magic Kingdom just nine months before this trip and while it was fun, it wasn’t “magical.”
[WARNING: The words “magic” and/or “magical” will be used excessively in this article – if you haven’t already noticed.]
As a travel professional, I’ll be the first to admit, Disney vacations are more difficult than many others to plan. Why? We all want to have a magical experience when we go, so we all have high expectations. In order to meet those expectations, we really should plan well in advance so that we can reserve the best accommodations, character experiences, dining experiences, and/or cruise itineraries. Disney vacations book up fast! Here are my tips for planning a truly magical Disney vacation.
- Plan/ book ahead of time – for resorts book at least 6 months ahead of time, for cruises, book even farther out. There are some very practical reasons for this.
- Disney Cruise Line only has four ships; therefore, they don’t have the large capacity of other lines like Carnival Cruise Line. Disney sailings fill up fast, especially during peak times like summer, winter break, and spring break. If want to get on that Alaska sailing or Norwegian Fjords sailing with Disney (let alone get your ideal stateroom set up such as adjoining rooms or family staterooms), you need to book easily one year in advance. Some of these sailings sell out as soon as they become available!
- The special experiences in the parks like dining with a princess or
getting a princess makeover at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique book up fast. They are open for reservations 180 days out, and many people are (no kidding) on the phone at midnight 180 days out ensuring their little princess gets to have dinner with Cinderella in the Magic Kingdom. A lot of these are just not available if you don’t book them about 6 months in advance.
- Holiday parties like Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party are capacity controlled and if you want to go
to these, you should buy a ticket as soon as they are available because they do sell out. By the way, these tickets are in addition to your normal park entrance. These are special after-hours events.
- Finally, if you want to stay in the park (which everyone recommends), you will want to book your accommodations well in advance because they also sell out. This is particularly a challenge for Disney Land because their in-park lodging options are simply not as abundant as Disney World.
- Stay in the parks if at all possible. Aside from the cool themes that they each have and the family-friendly atmosphere, there are many other benefits.
- Especially for Disney World – being on site is a lifesaver for families with small children. The parks are spread very far apart; therefore, walking is not an option. If your child normally naps, you can easily take the WDW transportation system between resorts and hotels. Spend the morning in the parks and then head back to the hotel for the afternoon nap. Wake up and continue you the fun as you wish.
- One of my favorite benefits of staying onsite is the Extra Magic Hours. The resorts will open early or stay open late for Disney hotel guests only. If you have small children that wake up early anyway…this is a great way to get into the park when it is less crowded. If you’re lucky, you’ll have early
Extra Magic Hours to visit the Animal Kingdom and may get to see more animals out and about in the earlier hours.
- Guests that stay on site can make their FastPass+ reservations extra early (60 days in advance). Hello, Anna and Elsa. Now you don’t have to wait (no joke) ~2 hours in line to meet the princesses from Frozen. Or, you can actually ride Test Track in Epcot. It’s always been too long of a wait for me.
- Whether you drive or fly to Orlando, staying on site is beneficial, because parking is free for hotel guests on-site and/or you can take the free shuttle from the Orlando airport to your Disney hotel. The Magical Express Service will save you some hassle with your luggage to and from the airport. If you only plan on visiting WDW while in Orlando, you shouldn’t have to drive or get a rental car at all.
- I have not personally used the Dining Plans, but many families swear by them as they save money and hassle. You can only purchase meal plans if you stay on site.
- There are a wide variety of price points/ accommodation types in Disney Park resorts, starting with the “value” resorts like Pop Century, to the moderate resorts like Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort, to the luxurious Cinderella Castle Suite in the Magic Kingdom, and everything in-between like the villas in the Animal Kingdom Lodge or the Fort Wilderness campground. There is something for everyone. However, you can often find cheaper lodging outside of the park as well as cheaper food options…so you have to weigh what is more important to you. Staying offsite will require a personal vehicle though.
- Be prepared for the expense. Everything from the food to the souvenirs to the photo ops to the tickets is more expensive than comparable things in the “real world.” For one, there is only one Disney, and they are a business, so they know they can get away with charging a premium. But, I also like to remind others (and myself) when I encounter sticker shock, the products and experiences are more often than not premium, so the value is well matched with the price.
TIP: To avoid major headaches over money, I recommend planning in advance by working with a travel agent to put a deposit down on your Disney trip. This way you’ll know the bottom line and have months to save up. You can also use this time to work with your travel agent to get an idea for how much the food and added activities will cost so you can budget for that as well.
- Speaking of value for money, I want to highlight Disney Cruise Line. (Listen, I worked for Carnival Corporation.) I’ve visited a lot of cruise ships so I can be confident in saying the following: Disney cruises are expensive, but the premium price is worth it.
- Staterooms are designed with families in mind, often including bathtubs, split bathrooms, refrigerators, and room dividing curtains. Most other cruise lines to do not regularly offer bathtubs in staterooms. Also, Disney’s staterooms are ~ 25% larger than other cruise lines, offering more wiggle room for your wiggly ones.
- Dining on Disney cruises is special. You don’t dine in the same dining room every night, as is tradition in the cruise industry, you rotate dining rooms. Along with themed formal dining rooms, like Lumiere’s (from Beauty and Beast), there are more casual eateries like the Enchanted Garden that changes from day to night scenery during the course of your meal. But the most popular dining experience is Animator’s Palate, which starts off as a literal black and white experience and transforms into a vibrantly colorful and glowing experience from the waiters’ uniforms to the décor.
- Entertainment onboard is unparalleled. Disney has a clear advantage over the other cruise lines here. They have a deep, rich vault of creative material with which to put on amazing live productions. I saw the debut of their live production of Tangled, and it was the best cruise show I’ve ever seen. Not to forget the Pirate Deck Parties, character meet-and-greets, and first-run showings of Disney movies onboard.
- If you are a soda drinker, soda is included on Disney cruises, where it is not on most cruise lines. This is a savings of $7-29 per person, per day depending on the cruise line. Some cruise lines even require that everyone purchase a beverage package in the room if one person does.
- Childcare is available for all ages. Children 3 and older have free, supervised activities in four different age-divided facilities day and night. There is no extra charge for night care (3 y.o. and higher), which is the norm for other cruise lines.
- Castaway Cay, Disney’s private Caribbean Island has something for everyone: separate beaches for children and adults, activities for all ages, and food for days. Speaking of, onboard Disney Cruise Lines also has a variety of adults-only activities in the form of specialty restaurants and pool areas.
- Disney is very good about accommodating special dietary needs. Just communicate these needs ahead of time, and you’ll be set.
- Prices vary widely. At one time of year, a Disney Cruise price can seem more comparable with other cruise lines, but during spring, summer, and winter school breaks and on certain exclusive itineraries, prices can be very high. If you are willing to take the kids out of school, you can enjoy a very reasonably priced cruise.
As you can see, there is much to consider when planning a Disney Vacation and I didn’t even mention the amazing Adventures by Disney options like their National Park tours or river cruises! If this all seems overwhelming to you, reach out to a travel consultant that specializes in Disney or family travel. Travel consultants, like me, can be the one that selects the right resort for you to stay in, stay up until midnight to reserve your daughter a makeover at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, reserve you a seating for dinner at the
California Grill so you can dine on AMAZING food (foodie here) while watching the Magic Kingdom’s firework display, or sort out the many room/ stateroom configurations that will serve your travel party best.
If there is one thing you take away from this article, please remember to give yourself plenty of time to plan so that you can get the most magical experience possible!
I’m here to help you with your Disney Vacation. All you have to do is fill our trip planning form, and we’ll start a conversation on how to make this happen for you.
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