The Definitive Guide to Walt Disney World Vacation Planning

How to plan your Walt Disney World vacation

How to Plan and Book Your Walt Disney World Vacation

The Ultimate Resource Guide to Planning and Booking a Magical Disney Vacation

Booking your own Disney vacation has never been easier.

The challenge is not in the actual booking of rooms, airfare, dining and activities, because anyone can do that with the click of a mouse or a tap on a phone. The real challenge is knowing the details about a specific location: where to stay, what to do, which choices to make and how early to begin planning.

This guide is designed to bring order to the planning and booking of an upscale Walt Disney World vacation. I blog weekly about luxury Disney travel and an awful lot of those blog posts cover essential steps in the Disney vacation planning process.

I created this page to pull it all together as the ultimate guide to planning and booking a Walt Disney World vacation. Here you’ll find the step-by-step process to Disney vacation planning with convenient links to a number of my blog posts covering specific details about all facets of Walt Disney World vacation planning. Think of it as a master index to many of my Walt Disney World vacation planning posts.

Here you’ll find 50 years of Walt Disney World vacation planning experience in one easy-to-read place.

Walt Disney World Vacation Planning Infographic

I also created a handy Disney vacation planning infographic as a quick resource for each step. (You can also find the Walt Disney World vacation planning infographic on my Pinterest page).

Minnie Mouse in a Parade at Walt Disney World.

What Kind of Disney Traveler are You?

A fun thing to do before you begin is to determine exactly what kind of Disney traveler you may be. Knowing this will help to steer you in the right direction as you go through the steps below. So start by reading this post that covers what type of Disney traveler you, while helping to decode your Disney travel DNA.

I hope that you find this information useful and please feel free to share this page with others if it has been of any assistance to you. There are sharing buttons at the bottom of the post.

Step-by-Step: How to Plan and Book Your Walt Disney World Vacation

To be most effective in planning a Walt Disney World vacation, there’s a definite order to the steps that you should follow. Doing things out of order can add a lot of extra work down the road (and can really mess up your itinerary). So do yourself a favor and follow these steps in order to get things started on the right foot.

Note: All links on this page will open in new windows so that this index page will remain open for the next step.

Epcot Festival Center.

1. Decide When You Want to Go to Walt Disney World

Many people want to know when is the best time to visit Walt Disney World? The short answer is, any time that you get the chance!

All kidding aside, however, there really is no definitive “best time” because it depends on what “best” means to you. Best is a relative thing: lowest crowds? best weather? special events? best prices? You get the idea. It’s more a matter of planning around the pros and cons of each time of year and adjusting your Walt Disney World strategy and itinerary accordingly.

Generally speaking though, the second through fourth weeks of September are very good (lower crowds and good weather, plus the Epcot Food and Wine Festival and Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party are under way), while the Christmas Break period is very challenging (extreme crowds that lead to park closures before noon due to capacity). If you do want to go at Christmas time (which is a very magical time of year indeed), I’d advise visiting any time after Thanksgiving, but before approximately December 20.

Other than that, I really wouldn’t worry too much about trying to time your Walt Disney World vacation. We visit at all times of the year and always have a great time. So just be sure that you understand the pros and cons of the time that you are visiting and plan your vacation itinerary accordingly.

Disney's Grand Floridian Resort

2. Decide Where You Want to Stay at Walt Disney World

My advice here is to stay onsite in a Disney Deluxe Resort. The proximity to the Parks and magic are unbeatable, plus there are many other perks and benefits. This will provide you with the most immersive Disney experience. Another good option is the Four Seasons Orlando at Walt Disney World.

I have written many blog posts about Walt Disney World Deluxe Resorts and Villas, so feel free to review these links to help narrow down your options when it comes to which Disney Deluxe Resort is best for you.

Important Resources for Where to Stay at Walt Disney World

Select Walt Disney World Hotel Profiles

This or That: Walt Disney World Hotels Rated Head-to-Head

Expedition Everest Banner.

3. Book Your Trip as Early as Possible

Once you know when you want to go and where you want to stay, it’s time to book your Walt Disney World vacation.

There’s no reason to put off booking a Walt Disney World vacation. Why? Because rooms and resorts can sell out, especially if a special offer from Disney is being promoted. Plus, when you make your initial booking you only need to put down a small deposit to hold your reservation (usually in the range of $200). The full payment won’t be due until 45 days before your arrival (the Disney policy at the time of writing, subject to change.). So there’s no reason not to book even if you are only 75% certain that you’ll be going. If you cancel before full payment is due, you can get your deposit back. Plus, if a special offer were to come up after you made your booking, you can always call Disney (or your Travel Agent) and have it applied to your reservation (as long as you get on it early before the offer sells out).

If you’re using the services of a Travel Agent, make sure you pick a good one who is a bona fide Disney travel expert, because they should be doing this for you without you even having to ask.

So there’s really no downside to booking early, but there is a ton of upside.

There are five other decisions you’ll need to make when booking your hotel. These involve your park tickets, the Disney Dining Plan, the Disney PhotoPass/Memory Maker add-on, travel insurance and the Disney Magical Express (free Disney hotel transfers to and from Orlando International Airport).

  • Disney’s Magic Your Way Park Tickets

When you make your Walt Disney World hotel booking online, you’ll also be prompted to purchase your Magic Your Way Park Tickets at the same. The tickets are priced as part of your overall package. The main thing to consider here is whether or not you want the Park Hopper add-on. Regular Magic Your Way tickets allow you to visit one park per day (you can have in and out privileges, but it must be the same Park). With the Park Hopper add-on you can visit multiple parks each day. This can make itinerary planning much easier (see next item regarding dining) and if you’re staying in a Deluxe Disney resort hotel that’s close to a theme park, this can be a very valuable and convenient add-on.

  • The Disney Dining Plan

As part of your reservation pricing, you will also be able to see how much it would cost to add the Disney Dining Plan to your reservation. There are three levels to this plan, from one that focuses on quick service dining all the way up to one that focuses mainly on table service credits. The standard plan in the middle is the most popular of the three. Whether or not to purchase a Disney Dining Plan is a question of great debate among Disney travelers. We have purchased this a few times in the past, but we stopped many years ago because I believe it is not good value. However, the decision is wholly your own. There is no shortage of reading about this topic online.

When asked, I do not recommend purchasing the Disney Dining Plan. I believe you’ll come out ahead and have greater flexibility on a cash basis for your meals.

  • Disney PhotoPass/Memory Maker

There are Disney photographers located throughout the Theme Parks at Walt Disney World and at select other locations, such as Character Dining. If you purchase a Disney PhotoPass/Memory Maker then you can have these photographers take photos of you and your family wherever you see the photographers for the duration of your stay. This can be very handy to ensure everyone is in the picture and there are some extra magical add-ons in some of the photos to provide a little extra surprise. Basically you’ll have the opportunity to download all of these professionally-taken photos, which can easily result in hundreds of extra pictures of your Walt Disney World vacation. I find this to be a very good value and recommend it. But the choice is yours. Just be aware that you’ll be asked about it during the reservations process.

  • Travel Insurance

You’ll be asked whether or not you want to purchase trip insurance. This is a personal question and I encourage to review what they offer and make a decision as to what is best for you.

  • Disney’s Magical Express

Disney’s Magical Express is a complimentary bus service for guests of Disney hotels at Walt Disney World.  The bus will pick you up at the airport and take you to your Disney hotel and it will do the same on the return trip. Depending on which hotel you’re staying at, it may or may not be a direct route. Plus, you may have to wait up to several hours for your bags to make it to your room if you choose to leave your bags with the service. However, it is free.

Personally, I have never used this service because I much prefer the direct services offered by local limo companies. For an additional $150 or so on the cost of your entire vacation you can pre-book a round-trip limo and be shuttled directly to and from your hotel. You can even make a grocery stop on the way with some limo companies (something that we always do with the service that we use).

Again, this choice is up to you, but just be aware that you’ll be asked whether or not you would like to use Disney’s Magical Express as your hotel transportation.

Monsieur Paul Disney Epcot Sign

4. Book Your Disney Dining as Soon as You Book Your Resort Hotel (or as early as you are allowed)

Once your Disney hotel is booked, your table service dining reservations is the next most important thing to do. So be sure to research the restaurants that you want to visit well ahead of this time.

You are allowed to begin booking dining at Walt Disney World starting 180 days before your arrival. Popular restaurants (such as Be Our Guest in Disney’s Magic Kingdom Park) have been known to book up very quickly. So to avoid disappointment, keep a close watch on the calendar and making your bookings as early as possible.

It’s also important to know where each restaurant is located.

Walt Disney World covers a massive area of 43 square miles and it takes a lot longer than you may think to get from one place to another. You’ll want to be sure that you have enough time to get to wherever you’re going. You’ll also want to pay special attention if a restaurant is located inside a theme park. If it is inside a theme park, be sure that that is your only Park for that day, or that you will have a Park Hopper as part of your Magic Your Way Park Tickets. Having a dining reservation inside a Park does not mean you can get into the park without a ticket.

When you book dining you’ll need to provide a credit card number to hold the reservation. This is in place to discourage guests from holding onto reservations just in case. A few very popular restaurants (such as Cinderella’s Royal Table) will require payment in full at the time of booking.

Dining will basically form the structure that will determine you itinerary for the week.

Important Resources for Dining at Walt Disney World

Mickeys Boo To You Halloween Parade

5. Will You Be Attending Any Special Events or Experiences?

After you’ve booked your dining, the other thing to consider is whether or not you’d like to take part in any VIP Tours or ticketed experiences.

Walt Disney World offers a wide variety of these special experiences and ticketed events and in my opinion nearly every one is worth doing. Do a search on the My Disney Experience website to see what may be available during the time that you are there and consider adding a little extra magic to your stay in this way.

Important Resources for Special Events or Experiences at Walt Disney World

Sea Raycer mini speedboat, Bay Lake, Walt Disney World

6. Plan the Rest of Your Detailed Itinerary

Now that you have your important table service dining reservations locked in, you can begin to create your itinerary. You don’t want to overplan, but at the very least you should make note of which parks you plan to attend on each day. This information is a critical pre-requisite for the next step.

Make sure that you don’t over schedule and leave some time for fun activities outside of the parks (of which there are a ton).

Important Resources for Activities at Walt Disney World

FastPass+ Entrance Sign

7. Make Your FastPass+ Reservations

A Disney FastPass allows you to pre-reserve a time slot for a specific ride or attraction. You will be able to use three of these for each night of your vacation. Each day’s allotment of three must be used in the same park. If you’re staying onsite at a Disney Resort hotel (or at a select resort hotel that offers the same benefits) you can begin making your FastPass+ Reservations 60 days before your arrival. FastPasses for the most popular attractions can disappear in no time at all (there are limited numbers) so make a note in your calendar and be sure to get online as soon as you can at the 60-day mark. If you have a MyDisneyExperience account, you should get an email notification, but it’s better to make your own note and get on it before that email arrives.

Important Resources for FastPasses at Walt Disney World

Epcot American Adventure

Other Important Disney Vacation Planning Resources

General Disney Travel Tips

Luxury Disney Travel

Please visit the 1923 Main Street™ section of my website for a master list of all official Disney websites — from Walt Disney World to Disneyland and all other Disney destinations and travel services around the globe.

Planning a Walt Disney World Vacation?

As a Luxury Travel Blogger and author of The Very Best of Walt Disney World Resort, I blog regularly about upscale Disney vacations of all shapes and sizes.

Subscribe to my Luxury Disney Travel Newsletter to keep up-to-date on the latest Disney travel news and feature stories.

Mike Belobradic: The Finer Side of Disney Travel
Luxury Travel Blogger – Deluxe Disney Travel Specialist

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