Since we’ve been back from Walt Disney World (WDW), I’ve had a lot of people ask for tips & ideas for planning their future Disney trips. So in the interest of writing everything down only once… I’m going to blog about it. These posts will just be highlights of things we did / learned this trip that might be of use to you! This first one will be general tips for planning travel to WDW. I’ll post more specific tips about being at WDW in subsequent posts.
This trip was my 7th trip to WDW. I am most definitely a Disney enthusiast! But it was my first time there with kids. Ha – what a difference!! WDW is truly a magical place – every time I go I feel like a kid again! Some who have never been have asked what’s so great about it – and here’s my answer – everything is an experience. From the atmosphere at the hotels, to the restaurants, to the shows, to the music in the bathrooms, to the stores, to the rides – everything tells a story. Other theme parks have rides, but WDW has experiences. And they are so varied, that it is possible to please all age groups, preferences, and temperaments! It can’t be beat!
First off, we started with visiting www.disneyworld.com and checking out the “tickets and packages” page and then the “special offers” page. There are new special offers coming out fairly often, so it’s great to keep checking back on the special offers for a few months before booking your vacation. You can sign up to receive a free WDW vacation planning package – if you’ve never been to Disney, you should definitely get this. Early on, you will need to decide whether or not you want to stay at a WDW resort or off the resort. We love to stay at a WDW resort because there are so many advantages – you don’t have to rent a car, you get the convenience of Disney transportation around WDW property, you get “Extra Magic Hours” at the parks (times that the parks are open only for resort guests), and you can also take advantage of WDW dining plans if you choose to do so. Be sure to check out the prices of your vacation at different times of the year – particularly be aware of what are the “value” seasons (these are the cheapest and least crowded!). Also be aware that vacation package prices increase dramatically during holiday weeks – so if you can avoid those, it’s worth it.
We booked our own vacation through the WDW website, without the help of a travel agent. It’s simple and convenient. We used a travel agent when we booked a WDW vacation in 2000 – I don’t think there was really any advantage to doing that. (I have heard, though, that AAA members can get additional discounts / package prices by booking through AAA.)
We also did buy a dining plan – the quick service dining plan, which gives you 2 quick service meals per day and 2 snacks (you can get more details on the dining plans at the WDW website, and you can see restaurant menus at www.easywdw.com). This worked out really well for us. I kept track of the prices of the meals & food we were buying and the dining plan was certainly a savings. You get a ton of food, and realistically we may not have bought as much food as we got… but I still believe we saved money by having the dining plan.
When you book a WDW vacation, you get the option of adding a “park-hopper” option for your park tickets. This means that you can go to more than one park in one day. I highly recommend this, especially for families with older children and who are staying at a WDW hotel. If you have all toddlers (who may be too tired or overwhelmed by more than one park a day) or if you are staying outside the WDW resort (so that travel back & forth between parks is more of an issue), you may want to stick with one park a day.
We had 7-day park hopper tickets, and I felt that this was perfect for us. It gave us a chance to spend at least one day at each of the parks. The other three days, we were able to go back to the parks we enjoyed and catch up on rides we missed (or ride the favorites again). We also felt like we had time to spend back at the hotel swimming while not feeling like we were missing too much at the parks. I have never been to WDW before in the winter – always in the spring or summer. I was amazed this time (mid-February) that there were barely any lines at the rides. All my other trips, lines would have been at least a half hour if not longer. This trip, we waited at the most 10-15 minutes for the more popular rides. The first four days of the trip were chilly – we were comfortable in pants and light jackets, but the last three days were warm enough for the kids to swim in the afternoons. Overall, it was a great time of year to go.
This was our first time flying with the kids. The one big thing I learned for people traveling with toddlers – minimize your carry-on luggage, particularly if you have a layover. Since you have to pay now for checking luggage, we thought we’d save money by having two carry-ons for us adults. That was a mistake. I really felt like I needed (but didn’t have) both hands free to assist the kids. I will also say that if you are staying at a Disney resort and plan on going to the parks as soon as you get there – make sure you pack everything you’d need in your carry-ons. Although the WDW transportation from the airport to hotel is fabulously convenient – it can take up to 3 hours for your checked baggage to arrive at your room.
If you have a while to plan before you actually go on vacation, I would suggest keeping an eye open for Disney Visa card offers. Right on the WDW website there is usually an offer for a $40 gift card (called a rewards card) if you sign up for the Disney Visa card. However, about two months before our vacation, we got an offer in the mail for a $200 gift card for signing up. So we did. It was great to have that $200 spending money at the parks! Keep in mind that if you sign up for the credit card – you have to use it once before you’re eligible to get your gift card, then that billing cycle has to be completed, then you have to request that they mail you the gift card. Like I said, we signed up for the credit card about two months before our vacation and our gift card came in the mail two days before our vacation (whew!). Other perks with having the Disney visa card – you get 10% off purchases greater than $50 at the parks, and you also get a free character photo shoot and photo at Epcot.
As far as planning ahead of time for your trip – two other things to think about are strollers and dining reservations. We rented a stroller from Orlando Stroller Rentals and it was great – I would definitely recommend it. You can rent strollers at the parks (but it is more expensive and I don’t think they are as comfortable). Our stroller was lightweight and easy to fold. The company delivers it and picks it up right from your hotel. And there was definitely an advantage to having it outside the parks (think waiting in line for a bus back to your hotel room in the evening with a sleepy child!). If you plan on having any character meals or dining in WDW sit-down restaurants, you need to make reservations ahead of time. I think depending upon the time of year, and how much it matters to you whether you get the location /time you want, you should try to make reservations as soon as possible – they will accept reservations up to 180 days in advance!! For example, we made reservations one month in advance – we knew we wanted a princess breakfast. There were no openings at all for breakfast in the castle during our stay, but we were able to get a reservation for a princess breakfast at Epcot at a later time (almost 10:00 am). And that is during a non-busy time of year! Go here for more info.
Some other websites we used that give great tips for travel to Disney:
There are lots of ways to get a “cheaper” WDW vacation – these websites give some awesome ideas. Things like staying off WDW property, bringing food along to the parks and/or eating meals in your hotel room, splitting meals when buying at the parks (the meals ARE usually way more than enough food for one person!), buying souvenirs prior to the trip at non-Disney stores, etc. Do a lot of research and decide what works best for your family!