19 Essential Tips for Planning Your First Walt Disney World Vacation

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Vacation planning is always a challenge, but Disney World can be exceptionally complicated, especially for first timers. Here are 19 tips for planning your first Disney World vacation!

Part 1 - Big Picture Things

Let's start with some big picture tips. These are the things to think about before you get around to booking your Walt Disney World trip.

1. Learn The Basics

Before you start planning, you need to make sure you know what you're talking about. We have a separate post covering some of the basics of Walt Disney World.

That post includes things like how big the resort is, what parks are there, and what different types of resorts are there. Even if you think you're familiar with the basics, it can't hurt to quickly skim the list.

2. Know How This Trip Fits Into The Bigger Picture

Going to Disney World for the first time? Be prepared for friends, family, and Disney experts to freak you out. We're all going to tell you how much there is to do and how much planning you need to do.

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Balance this by knowing whether you're planning a "once-in-a-lifetime trip" or not. Notice the quotes, a good benchmark is probably about ten years. If this is the only time you'll be in Walt Disney World in the next ten years, then definitely go overboard planning. If you'll be back next year, conversely, feel free to keep it simple.

3. Consider a Disney Vacation Planner

Look, you can read all the blogs, download all the apps, and set all the alarms, but there's no doubt it's a little easier if you have an Authorized Disney Vacation Planner to help you through things. For a first-timer, having the help of a travel planner allows you to keep focus on the more fun parts of of your trip!

You can get a quote from our recommended travel planner, Lauren Quirk at Enchanted Escapes Travel, via our form here.

4. Know How To Use Crowd Calendars

Crowd calendars are calendars that attempt to tell you how busy the parks will be on a given day. When planning your trip, you'll want to know the best Disney crowd calendars and how to use them.

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In short: don't worship these calendars. As our post explains, you want to use them to identify big picture things that might impact crowd levels. For the most part, there is no low season at Walt Disney World, and you can't reliably predict crowds on a day-to-day basis.

5. Check the refurbishment calendar (and remember anything can happen)

It stinks, but sometimes rides have to go down for refurbishments. Occasionally hotel pools and restaurants go down, too. The official ride refurbishment list can be found on Disney's website as part of the park hours calendar. A more comprehensive refurbishment calendar can be found at Undercover Tourist.

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You don't have to plan around refurbishments, and arguably you shouldn't because you never know when an unexpected one will pop up. But you should know whether anything is scheduled to be down so that you can manage your expectations. No one wants to get to the park to discover the ride they were most excited about is down.

Part 2 - Booking Your Trip

Once you've got some dates in mind and you think you know what you're in for, it's time to book the trip.

6. Pay Attention to Discounts and Deals

Check out these posts of ours to save the most on your trip:

We've also got 53 Ways to Save on your Disney Vacation.

7. Fly Into Orlando International Airport (MCO)

Most people get this one right, but it's worth quickly including in the list. Orlando International Airport (MCO) is the primary airport serving Orlando and the surrounding area. The main alternative is Orlando Sanford International Airport.

If you're staying at a Disney Resort, you'll have access to complimentary transportation to and from Orlando International Airport as part of your stay, which makes it an obviously appealing option.

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Orlando International Airport is also closer to Walt Disney World than Orlando Sanford, meaning you'll have cheaper rates on shuttles and especially on taxis and Uber between the airport and non-Disney resorts.

There are obviously going to be some cases where it makes economic sense to fly into Orlando Sanford, just make sure you account for the extra cost of getting to property (and back to the airport).

8. Stay at a Disney Resort

We don't think everything Disney touches turns to pixie dust. We also don't get free stays or any other sort of compensation from Disney for talking about their hotels. And while we get that some people have been disappointed by them, we really love Disney resorts.

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Staying at a Disney resort gets you access to certain perks, some of which are accessible to guests of certain other hotels, as well. These including things like:

  • Disney's Magical Express: complimentary transportation between Orlando International Airport and your hotel
  • Extra Magic Hours: an hour before or after regular park hours where the park is open only for hotel guests
  • Early Access To FastPass+: you'll be able to book times for your favorite rides 60 days in advance of your stay, rather than the standard 30

If you're looking for a value resort, consider Art of Animation to be surrounded by Disney animation and characters. We're also fans of Pop Century.

If you're considering a Disney deluxe resort, we're fans of Animal Kingdom and Wilderness Lodge, two beautiful resorts with great theming.

    9. Do Not Rent A Car

    Before Disney charged for parking at the hotel, renting a car made a little sense. Now that Disney charges $13 to $33 per night, there's usually no reason to rent a car on your first trip. Obviously, if you're staying at a non-Disney hotel without parking charges, feel free to rethink this.

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    You can Uber around Walt Disney World for about $8 to $20 per trip if you really need to zip from point A to point B. And for your first trip, you'll be able to fill an itinerary without needing to hop around the resort a crazy amount. Paying for a maximum of one Uber a day makes more sense than paying for, and dealing with the hassle of, a rental car.

    10. Book Your Advance Dining Reservations

    Like the resorts, Disney restaurants are an important part of the Walt Disney World experience. You've got a wide range of restaurants to choose from:

    • Dine in Cinderella Castle with princesses
    • Enjoy the fireworks from California Grill at the top of the Contemporary
    • Share the single best dish Disney has the offer: bread service at Sanaa
    • Start your day with Kona Cafe's Tonga Toast and Bloody Mary flight
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    Advance Dining Reservations, or ADRs, can be booked 180 days in advance. You'll want to pick your restaurants as early as possible and then look into booking them. And keep your eyes on slots you can't get immediately, as they may open up.

    Part 3 - Surviving the Trip

    Once your trip has been booked, you'll need to know how to survive the experience itself.

    11. Download and Explore the My Disney Experience App

    Disney's free "My Disney Experience" app is full of capabilities and information. From checking wait times to reserving FastPass selections to making dinner reservations, the app is an incredible tool and source of information. Download it now and play around with it for a few minutes.

    12. Learn About The Parks

      We don't have exhaustive coverage of each individual park, but we do have rides guides that cover the rides, attractions, and some entertainment at each park. Check these out so that you know what to expect from each park:

      There is more to the parks than what we cover in these guides, but these are a great place to start to get our perspective on the parks.

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      13. Master FastPass+

      If you read those guides and got excited about those rides, great! Now it's time to plan how to get on them!

      To get the most of your time at Walt Disney World, you'll want to master the FastPass+ system. FastPass+ is a free system, available to anyone with a park ticket, that essentially allows you to skip the line at most rides.

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      The system isn't perfect. It requires a lot of knowledge to really perfect using it. And even if you learn everything you can, some things are still up to chance. Not to mention, when you finally get to the parks, excessive crowds can mean that even people with FastPass+ can wind up waiting a bit.

      Besides our guide to FastPass+ that we linked to above, we have individual park FastPass+ guides:

      14. Learn Your Transportation Options

      How do you get around Disney World? You probably think bus or monorail, and you'd be right but still missing three options: walking, taking a boat, and Uber / Minnie Vans.

      Take the time to research which means of transportation go where, as it will help you in scheduling your days and in choosing a resort. Real quick: Polynesian, Contemporary, and Grand Floridian all are a short monorail trip from Magic Kingdom, and two monorail rides away from Epcot. 

      Guests at the Contemporary can also walk to Magic Kingdom. Yacht Club, Beach Club, and BoardWalk Inn guests can walk to Hollywood Studios or Epcot. Most other transport between the hotels and parks is done by bus.

      15. Do Not Drink Around the World

      We include this mostly because we took someone on her first trip recently, and we regretted attempting to drink around the world. She was really excited about it, as many first-time visitors are, but we should have nixed it.

      The reason is simply that we had three days for the parks, and even with our skills of crafting great days in the parks, that wound up being sort of a waste. She didn't get to experience much of Epcot because we were so preoccupied hopping from country to country. And by the sixth or seventh country, you probably don't have to presence of mind to soak in the individual pavilions, which are spectacular.

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      There are a few exceptions. If you have an extra day in your trip that you can dedicate solely to the activity, then it might be worth considering if you're into the idea. If you're splitting drinks, then it's probably okay, too, since you'll have more time and sobriety to really enjoy Epcot.

      Part 4 - Your Next Steps

      Okay, so you've read our tips and you're ready for the next steps. Here are some resources to know and one last big tip to keep in mind throughout the process.

      16. Consider Purchasing a Guide Book

      More into the printed word than internet? Consider purchasing Birnbaum's 2018 Walt Disney World: The Official Guide (Birnbaum Guides). Birnbaum has long been one of the most popular guides for Disney World planning. While we prefer online resources (more below) because so much can change so quickly, we get that some people prefer books. Consider also:

      17. Pack The Right Things

      The internet is full of Disney packing lists, and you'll have no problem finding long ones on Pinterest or Google. We've decided not to put together a full packing list, and instead we have a list of 10 Things We Always Forget To Pack For Walt Disney World. These are ten essentials that don't always make even the longest lists.

      18. Know Where To Get Your Information Online

      You're here, and we think that's great! But we're only one good source of information on Walt Disney World. There are lots of places to go, but we've got two sites we especially love.

      First, Disney Tourist Blog is a great site dedicated to all things Disney travel. We always start our search for information at Disney Tourist Blog, and we highly recommend their Disney World planning guide.

      Second, WDW Prep School is an extensive, exceptionally deep resource for Disney World planning. If you need a site to guide you from trip planning, beginning to end, start there.

      Finally, if you've got questions, the /r/WaltDisneyWorld subreddit over on reddit is a good place to post. You can also find good people on Twitter. If you don't know where to start, follow us (@MouseHacking) and the people we follow.

      19. Magic Is Earned, Not Given

      We're putting this last because we want to finish on an important note. This is a principle that applies in pretty much any way you can interpret it. Here are a two important interpretations...

      Do not ask Cast Members for magic. It's insulting to expect them to just give away free perks to anyone who asks.

      Make your own magic for the Cast Members. Be polite to Cast Members; appreciate the little things they do. Send a Cast Compliment to guest services. This is just part of being a decent human.

      Know what you're getting into and plan contingencies. Guess what, if you show up at Walt Disney World on a summer weekend and then go to guest services to complain about lines, you're the only one at fault! Instead, take advantage of the opportunities to avoid lines (including rope drop and FastPass+).

      Sometimes even when you do that, things might not work out. Disney World has plenty to offer, be prepared to be flexible in finding how to have a good time. The parks will be kind to you if you let them.

      All Your Other Disney World Planning Questions Answered

      Don't be overwhelmed by Disney World planning! Take a second to check out our most important content and you'll not only be an expert, but you'll save big $$$ along the way. If you're still picking dates, we've got everything you need to know about Disney crowd calendars. For picking your hotel, check out our Walt Disney World hotels guide.

      When it comes time to book, we've got you covered with posts on how to book cheap flights, how to get the best deal on your Disney hotel, and where to find discount Disney World tickets.

      Don't forget to master your Disney World Fastpass+ strategy a few months in advance. We'll keep you out of long lines so you can maximize the magical time in the parks!

      Finally, before you head out, be sure to check out our to-the-point packing list, 10 essentials you forget to pack for every Disney trip. And if you're interested in saving, there's no better list than our 53 Ways to Save on your Disney trip from start to finish.

      Do you have any tips for Walt Disney World first-timers?