Disney Tips – Planning Your Disney Family Vacation
A visit to Walt Disney World is a special and unforgettable experience for every family. Planning a Disney family vacation, however, can be overwhelming, especially if you are doing it for the first time. When I began to plan our family’s first trip to Disney several years ago, I had so many questions and did not know where to begin…
I was lucky to have several Mom friends who I consider “Disney World pros” because they had visited the park with their families many times and had a lot of advice and Disney tips ready to share with me. They definitely helped make our first trip a success. In the spirit of “paying it forward,” here are my Disney tips for planning your family vacation based on our family’s experiences:
Take advantage of the Disney World website
The Walt Disney World website is a wonderful resource! It offers loads of information about everything related to planning your trip: detailed info on all the parks, descriptions of Disney properties, suggestions on things to do during your trip (such as dining, special events, shows, character experiences) and more.
My personal favorite feature of the site is the Disney Park’s Moms Panel, a question and answer forum moderated by Disney-appointed experts. The section is neatly organized by topics to help you find answers to your questions, but in the event you cannot find the information you need, you can post your own question, which will be answered promptly, sometimes by several members of the Mom panel team. (And if you have any questions for the Hilton Mom Voyage team, you can always ask us.)
When to Go to Disney World
This is the first decision you need to make. Disney World tends to be busy year round; however, the parks can be uncomfortably packed when kids are out of school: during summer, spring break and around major holidays. Try to avoid these time periods if at all possible! This is usually not a problem for families with younger children who are not yet in school, but becomes more of a challenge for families with school age kids.
Another consideration for visiting Orlando is the weather. As a family who lives in Chicago, we loved our visit to Disney World in early November when the weather at home was cold and gloomy while Orlando was sunny and warm, not to mention that the holiday crowds hadn’t yet hit! In contrast, our more recent visit to Disney World was in June, after the school year ended and as expected, not only were the crowds a lot thicker and wait times a lot longer, but we were also melting under the hot Florida sun.
Bottom line, you may want to consider scheduling your visit during the school year, perhaps over a long weekend, even if this means taking your kids out of school for a day or two. I consider myself a pretty strict Mom when it comes to school, but I decided to let our children miss two days, so that we could take advantage of lower prices and thinner crowds. It was well worth it!
Where to Stay
The next thing to decide is where to stay while in Orlando. You can choose to stay at a Disney Resort property (offered in different price ranges and themes) or you can select a hotel off-property in proximity to the Disney parks, as well as look into other hotels in the Orlando area.
Some of the major benefits of staying at a Disney property are:
- Location: In most cases, you will be very close to the parks. From some properties you can even walk there; with others, you will be able to take advantage of Disney’s extensive free transportation system via the monorail and buses.
- Other transportation-related benefits: You don’t need to worry about transportation to and from the airport since Disney provides complementary motor coach service to everybody who stays at any one of its properties. If you will be visiting by a car, there is free parking at all Disney properties.
- Packages and deals: Disney frequently offers “special deals,” many of which include Disney Dining Plans, another important decision you need to consider as you are booking your trip (see below for more on this topic).
- Special hours: Each day, one of the parks offers special hours reserved for guests of Disney’s properties either before or after regular park hours.
- Special events/appearances: Many Disney resorts offer additional attractions to their guest such as dining with characters.
Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista, while not a Disney owned property, is located within the Disney World Resort, directly across from the Downtown Disney area, and offers free transportation to and from all of the parks, Disney’s Extended Theme Park Hours, and a Disney Character Breakfast every Sunday.
The advantages of Orlando area non-Disney hotels and resort are:
- More budget friendly pricing: Non-Disney resort properties are often more affordable.
- Less Disney “overload”: This might sound weird, but sometimes having a break after a whole day in the parks is a good thing.
- More central location: This is a benefit in some cases, especially if you plan on visiting other parks and attractions in the Orlando area.
Many families enjoy Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek, which is surrounded by the Disney Resort, with its award-winning pool and complimentary transportation to and from the Disney Theme Parks and the Downtown Disney Area.
Hilton Orlando is centrally-located to SeaWorld, Disney World, and the Universal Orlando Resort. Read more about why our family loved Hilton Orlando!
Which Parks to Visit
This is largely a personal preference, which depends on how long you plan to stay, ages of your children, your particular interests, etc. Having visited Disney World a couple of times, I would say that Magic Kingdom, the soul of Disney World, is a must see and best suitable for families with younger children.
Older kids and tweens will enjoy Animal Kingdom and both water parks, Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach. Everybody will have fun at EPCOT and Hollywood Studios, but both parks have several attractions best suited for older kids and teens.
Even if you usually prefer to wing it when it comes to your vacation plans, you will want to have a rough plan about which parks you want to visit, as well as top attractions you want to see, prior to your arrival to Orlando. This will help you purchase the most economical ticket option for your visit (see the next point) and also ensure your park visits are as enjoyable as possible.
For each of our past trips, I created a loose itinerary outlining which park we would be visiting and top attractions our family wanted to see. The rest was optional, depending on how our day was going.
There are several resources to help you fine tune your visit once you have decided which parks you want to enjoy. One such example is Undercover Tourist, which includes a calendar that can help you decide which day(s) during your stay are best for visiting a particular park.
I want to emphasize that it is equally important to build some downtime into your itinerary, especially if your trip is longer than two or three days. As much fun as Disney parks are, they can also be exhausting given all the stimulation overload and lots of walking, particularly in hot weather. Take some time to relax at your hotel pool, get a massage or just take a nap. Trust me, it will make everybody happier!
To maximize your experience and particularly your budget, you will want to carefully select the best ticket option for your visit. Per my previous point, putting together a loose itinerary should be a very helpful first step. Next, here are some things to keep in mind and key ticket options to help you with your purchase:
- Base Ticket: When you see the term “base ticket,” it means entry to one park per day. Tickets are required for everybody age 3 and up. While you need to pay extra to visit more than one park per day, you are allowed to go in and out of that particular park without restrictions (very helpful for returning to your resort for nap time or a break in the middle of the day).
- The more days the better: The more days you visit the parks, the more money you save per day. For example, if you plan to visit parks for five days total, the five-day park ticket will be more economical per day than buying five separate day passes.
- Park Hopper: For an additional fee, you can visit more than one park per day, which might be of value to some families. In our case, we preferred to do one park per day since there is so much to do and to see and we felt visiting more than one park would simply make for too crazy of a schedule, especially when our children were younger.
- Water Parks: With this add-on, you get admission to Typhoon Lagoon, Blizzard Beach and a few other Disney attractions. Make sure you purchase only for the days you plan on visiting the Water Parks.
- No Expiration: This add-on option allows you to use your tickets for more than one trip to Disney. For example, you can buy a 10-day Magic Your Way ticket and use four days on one trip and the remaining six on your future trip(s). At time of writing, this option is only available to purchase over the phone or in person.
- Annual Pass: For those who simply cannot get enough Disney there is an annual pass option, either Regular or Premium (with Water Parks add-on).
If you are not quite sure what to do, I suggest you consult one of the Disney agents at (407) 939-5277. They are trained to help you navigate these complex choices, so ask away.
Each time I was organizing a trip for our family, I felt very confident that I was getting the best deal given our particular travel plans (i.e. which parks we wanted to visit and the number of days we wanted to spend at each and at Disney in total).
If you decide to stay at one of the Disney properties, you will have an option to purchase one of the Disney Dining Plans, which are offered as part of a package deal. To review and obtain pricing on all available options, consult the website or a live operator.
You should know that meal plans range from breakfast and snacks at the park to three fine dining meals a day with a wide range of pricing. Also, keep in mind that the dining plans work similar to a punch card system. For example, with a Disney Deluxe Dining Plan you get three full meals (at quick service or table service restaurants) and two snacks per person, per day. It is entirely up to you how you use them.
For most people this means a lot of food, not to mention this option is most expensive. However, it is helpful to know that some high-end restaurants as well as some meals with characters count as two meals from your plan. When our children were smaller and we planned to attend several character meals, it was worth it for us to purchase the Deluxe Dining Plan. We saved our “lunch ticket” for dinner by paying for a quick service lunch at the park ourselves (this is often more economical than using the “meal ticket”), or we used our two “snack tickets” instead of lunch.
Another important piece of advice: Keep in mind that many restaurants book up way in advance, especially for dinner, which brings me to my next point.
Other things you should plan prior to your trip
There are several other elements I planned ahead of our trip such as our dining reservations and several shows and character visits. Many of these extra magical events, such as Breakfast with Princesses at the Magic Castle or dinner reservations at the California Grill where you can watch the fireworks over the Magic Kingdom, do sell out months in advance.
Make your wish list and then call or reserve online as soon as you firm up your travel plans. Disney allows you to make reservations up to 180 days in advance. You can always cancel or try to modify later if your plans change.
One more thing you should be aware prior to your trip is Disney’s Memory Maker. This Disney photo package lets you purchase an unlimited number of digital photos of everybody in your travel party, taken by Disney professional photographers throughout all Disney parks, as well as dining, and other entertaining venues.
In order to take advantage of best price, you have to purchase it at least three days in advance, so plan accordingly! You can always purchase it at the parks, but keep in mind that there is a hefty upcharge for that.
Final Disney Planning Tips
If all this sounds overwhelming, do not despair and keep the following in mind:
- You don’t have to do it all in one day! I spread out my research and planning over several months and did it in small chunks, which was much more manageable.
- It gets easier! I invested far more time in doing research and planning prior to our first trip. After that, I quickly became quite skilled at “Disney,” which now makes planning each of our subsequent trips to Orlando much easier.
- It’s worth it! I guarantee that your planning will make all the difference. You don’t want to be one of those tired and hungry families that have just been told that the wait time for the restaurant they really wanted to go to is 2 ½ hours or find out that Breakfast with Princesses at Magic Kingdom for the week you will be visiting sold out three months before you even got there.
Please share any of your Disney tips in the comments below!
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