In October of this year, my family and I did something I never thought we would ever be able to do. We went to Disney World! I’d never been there, but ever since I was a little kid I have wanted to go. Now that I’m an adult, I also wanted to be able to give that experience to my kids. I know this isn’t a food related post (the article about how we ate gluten-free while at Disney World will be coming soon), but I had a number of people that wanted to hear about planning a trip to Disney World. If you’re only here for the food, you can head over here instead. But, if you’re interested in hearing about our trip, I’ll do my best to fill you in on How a Newbie Plans a Trip to Walt Disney World.
The first time we drove past this sign while driving to Hollywood Studios, the kids screamed. At least I think they did. I couldn’t really hear them over my own screams. I could not believe that we’d actually made it there. Everything that I’d been planning for the last 7 months had all fallen into place. It seriously was like a dream come true.
But, we’ll start at the beginning first. In April 2014, my husband e-mailed me from work asking how my afternoon is going. I responded by saying that I’d just been looking around the web, trying to figure out if we could afford a trip to Disney. His response? That he’d had that exact same thought a few days earlier. That was all I needed to hear to begin moving forward with more serious planning. A little background on me – when I start to research something, whether it’s how to tile the kitchen back splash, which blender would best suit my needs, or gluten-free baking, I will research and read all the information I can on the topic, until I can talk about it like a pro. That’s exactly what happened when I planned our trip to Disney World.
What to Do First:
As soon as we decided that this was something we wanted to pursue, we had to decide on dates. Well, it was April already, and we didn’t really want to go during summer, since a Florida autumn is already hot enough for these Manitobans, a Florida summer day might have the same effect on us as it would on Olaf. We decided that we didn’t mind if the kids missed some school for it – with weekends and holidays during our vacation, they only missed 5 days total. We also read that typically, in October crowds are lower . As it ended up, this wasn’t a typical year. You can view estimated crowd calendars here and here (more on these sites later). So, find a time that works for you and your family, but keep in mind that you will want to start planning at least 7 or 8 months in advance. Some people plan years in advance – that’s slightly crazy in my opinion, but we also only had a 3 month engagement before we got married – I don’t like long, unnecessary wait times. 😉
Well, now is when the fun begins! Although there are travel agents out there that will book full Disney vacations for you (at no additional cost to you), as I already mentioned, I am a bit of a DIYer. I wanted to have a hand in every decision made. It’s not that I’m bossy or difficult, I just like to know what all the options are, and then make the decision that works best for us.
First thing we did was decide where we were going to stay while in Florida. I looked at the Disney resort hotels – there are a lot of beautiful ones, and staying on-site gives you certain benefits over those that don’t stay on-site. Then I took a look at VRBO for the Disney area, and we found the perfect condo immediately. We knew that we would rent a car while we were down there, so a place that had a short drive wasn’t a problem for us. If you don’t plan to rent a car, staying on-site might be better for you, since there are shuttles, ferries, and monorails available from all the resorts to the different parks. But since we were renting a car, and wanting more than a standard size hotel room (4 people staying for 10 days in a one room, 2 bed hotel room would not have been a vacation), we chose a place that was about a five minute drive to the parks. This is the condo we chose ( I’m not earning commission by sharing this, we just loved it so much). Take a quick minute to look at the pictures. As you can see – we had plenty of room. Enough room that everyone could spread out and have their own space, or relax in front of their own T.V. We weren’t at the condo a lot, our days were full of adventure and visiting parks, but the time we were there was bliss. Quiet, roomy, much more comfortable than any hotel would have given us, for about the same cost that a simple Disney resort room would have cost us. Something else that this place had that a hotel room doesn’t? A full kitchen. Fridge, freezer, microwave, stove top, and oven. I used all of them throughout our time there. When you have a restricted diet (and budget), being able to prepare your own food is an essential. Deciding that this was the place for us was easy. (Another post about the food we ate down there will be coming soon.)
Once we knew where we were staying, and had the condo reserved for the dates that we wanted, we booked the flight tickets. Be sure to check flights before booking your hotel or condo though, since not all airports fly out every day. We flew out of Grand Forks, ND – I think that might be the tiniest international airport anywhere. But, because they are smaller, we also had to check to make sure that there were flights on the days that we wanted to travel. We do live in Canada, but we flew out of the US because flights within the US are much cheaper than direct flights from Canada to the US.
Book condo. Check.
Book flights. Check.
Let the real planning begin!
Disney World consists of four parks – Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Epcot, and Animal Kingdom. In addition to that, they also have two waterparks, which we opted to not go to, since we were planning a day at the beach instead. The next thing you need to figure out is how many days you’ll spend at the Disney parks. We decided on 5 days, one day at each park, plus a second at Magic Kingdom. I do wish we’d done 6 days though. Once you’re paying for 4 people to go for 5 days, adding one more day isn’t a huge expense in comparison. The more days you visit the parks, the lower the price per day, plus they often have specials where you can get 6 days for the price of 5, etc. If you decide that you want to “park hop” (go to more than one park in a day), you will require a different ticket, so you need to plan that in advance as well. Although there are some reputable companies selling Disney tickets, I was too scared of things that could go wrong, so I ordered our tickets directly from the Disney website. Sure, the other seller was about $20 per ticket less, which would have been $80, but the peace of mind that I got ordering my tickets direct from Disney was worth that $80. Plus, the tickets were here in about 2 days via courier. The FedEx man recognized the package, because he handed it to me with a huge smile on his face and said “I can’t say what’s in there!” to the kids.
Dining is the main reason I suggest you start planning 7 or 8 months ahead. Dining reservations to the different Disney restaurants opens up 6 months in advance. I’m not kidding. It is really ridiculous! And since a lot of the restaurants are inside the different Disney parks, where you need a park ticket to enter, you need to plan where you will eat based on which park you will be at that day. See, I told you this gets a little crazy. We made two reservations well in advance, one the full 6 months, and the other I managed to snag when someone made a cancellation 2 months before we left. When you book a reservation you make it known that you have an allergy, and what the allergy is. When you arrive for your reservation, they are already fully aware of your dietary needs, and know to bring the chef out to talk to you about the menu. I will fill you in on where we ate, and what we had in the next Disney post.
There are also quick-serve restaurants, the type where you walk up and place your order, where a reservation is not needed. So, if you don’t have a reservation, you can still find a place to eat, don’t worry.
By the way, when making your dining reservations, please make sure that you will be at that park that day. Unless you plan to visit that park more than once, or you have park hopper tickets, you won’t be able to make use of the reservation that you accidentally booked for the next day. Our first day there, the person checking in for their reservation ahead of me had done just that – reservations were for the next day. I nearly died, then double and triple checked my printed reservation paper, just to make sure I had it right.
Which Park on Which Day?
This took some figuring and, I won’t lie, a spreadsheet. Things to take into consideration when you’re figuring this out are the park hours, the expected crowds at that park those days, whether or not there are “extra magic hours” those days, and whether or not there are any special ticket items that evening. When we went, Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party was happening, and we opted to not go to that. That is a hard ticket event which means that you need a separate special ticket for that night. If you use one of your purchased days to visit the Magic Kingdom during the day, you will be asked to leave by 7:00 because that is when the special ticket event takes place. If you do purchase tickets for a special event, you can enter the park at 4:00 already, even though the event doesn’t start until 7:00. But there was no way I wanted to cut my day short so others could party late into the night, so we were sure to visit there on days where there was no special event. You can check all the park hours here and here. Keep in mind that these hours can change, sometimes at the last minute, so always check what time the park opens and closes the day before you go, so you know whether you can sleep in or not. Who am I kidding, there is no sleeping in when you go to Disney World. We were all up bright and early every day.
This is one of the spreadsheets I put together while planning. Once I knew that on October 7th, we’d be going to Magic Kingdom, I updated it with the park hours, made sure to make that dining reservation 6 months in advance (seriously – wait a day past when your reservations open up, and you probably won’t get one at Cinderella’s Royal Table), added the times our FastPasses were for the day (more on this in a minute), and included the park’s scheduled shows that we wanted to see during the day.
FastPass is basically a reservation to one of the attractions at Disney World. When you stay at a Disney resort, you can book these 60 days in advance. When you stay off-site, you can book them 30 days in advance. You can pick 3 FastPasses per day, but once you have used them up, you can visit a FastPass kiosk and book another. Having a FastPass means that you can take a separate entrance, one that let’s you avoid the longer lines. If there is one thing we learned about Disney, there are lines for everything. There are lines to wait in lines. We were pretty lucky with the lines we did wait in, most of them moved pretty quickly. By doing your research ahead of time, you can figure out which rides are worth getting FastPasses for, and which are not (hint: Stich’s Great Escape at Magic Kingdom. Don’t. Just don’t).
My Favourite Planning Sites:
Before and during our planning, I did a lot of online homework. I read through sites, forums and Facebook pages, gleaning all the information that I could use when the time came.
Some of my favorite sites are:
WDW Prep School – LOVE this site. It is so full of great information on the parks, hours, special events, dining plans, recommended tour plans, etc. All in all, an amazing site, and one Sunday night per month, Shannon has a life Facebook chat where you can ask questions and get immediate answers. That takes amazing dedication!
Kenny the Pirate – If you’re hoping to see a lot of characters while at Disney, definitely check out Kenny’s site. With the tips from his site, the kids were able to see over 30 characters in our 5 days, with only one long line, which was to see Rapunzel and Cinderella. Definitely check his info for Character Palooza at Hollywood Studios!
Disney Parks Moms Panel – Ask questions, or browse all the questions asked by others in this forum where the answers come from “Disney Moms” (and Dads). Easy to search based on the topic as well, which comes in handy.
In the next post, where I talk about the food we ate while on vacation, I will share the links to the sites that I used to research the gluten-free options available at the Disney parks and surrounding area.
Just to give you a quick run down of our days:
October 4 – Travel day. My kids were as excited about this as they were Disney World. They’d never flown before, and were quite thrilled at take-off.
October 5 – Hollywood Studios. We went straight to Star Wars training sign up when we entered the park, and both kids got to battle Darth Vader. It was pretty cool. I would have loved another day at Hollywood Studios, I didn’t get to see or do nearly enough here.
October 6 – Epot’s Mission: SPACE and I do not get along. Even with Gravol. But, a nap in the afternoon solved that problem, and we had a great evening wandering the different countries, and having dessert in “Paris”.
October 7 – Magic Kingdom, where we started the day dining at Cinderella’s Royal Table, melted while watching the afternoon parade, and LOVED the evening fireworks show.
October 8 – We went to Sea World. We can now say we’ve been there. There were a few good shows there, but my son’s journal entry for the day sums it up. “It was kind of boring”. Oh well, not every day can be pirates and pixie dust!
October 9 – A day of exploring around Animal Kingdom. We actually spent the entire day here, since it closes earlier than the other parks.
October 10 – We hit the beach! We drove out to New Smyrna Beach, which is just absolutely gorgeous! I’d never seen the Atlantic Ocean before, and to just sit there and watch the waves was amazing.
October 11 – We visited an outlet mall, did some shopping, and visited Downtown Disney.
October 12 – the last full day in Florida was spent at the Magic Kingdom again. The ENTIRE day. We got there early, around 8 (the park opened at 9), and stayed until 11:00 pm. The.Whole. Day. And the kids did AMAZING! Such amazing memories were made.
October 13 – Travel back home. Not nearly as exciting as traveling from home. 😉
We had an absolutely amazing trip – I would do it again in a heartbeat. I only have one regret, but I’ll tell you about that in the next post.
I could go on and on, but I’ll leave it there for now. I’m happy to answer any questions you might have though.
If you have any other Disney World trip planning tips or questions, please leave them in the comments below, I’d love to read them!