Step-by-Step Guide to Planning a Disney World Vacation
Planning a Disney World vacation requires some research. Walt Disney World is a huge place (47 square miles — that’s almost twice as large as Manhattan!) with so many things to do and see that even after more than 40 visits, we have not begun to do it all.
Just a quick summary of SOME of what’s available at Disney World:
- 4 major theme parks: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios
- 2 water parks: Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon
- Over 20 large resorts
- 4 golf courses
- 2 mini-golf courses
- numerous lakes offering water sports, boating and fishing
- dinner shows
- BoardWalk entertainment district
- Disney Springs shopping and dining district
So it’s not surprising that you’re a little confused about where to begin.
You’ll need to decide the following, in roughly this order:
1. When you’re going.
Check our Disney World FAQ for hints on the best and worst times of year for planning a Disney World vacation. Obviously your budget, kids’ school schedules and other factors will influence your decision as well.
If you are interested in learning when discounts for Walt Disney World resorts and vacation packages became available in past years, we maintain a chart listing that historical information.
2. What you’re going to do when you get there.
Seems kind of early in the planning process, doesn’t it? I mean, you haven’t even decided on a hotel yet! Well, trust us, you need to do some research before you go any further. There is so much to do, and everyone does something slightly different. Depending on the parks and attractions you want to visit, you may find certain hotels and resorts are much more convenient.
You’ll need some good basic help with planning, and something that will give you an overview of the attractions, the entertainment, etc. We list the best guidebooks on our Disney Guidebooks page.
3. How long you’re staying.
You probably thought that was part of #1 above, didn’t you? But after you learn how much there is to do, you may re-think your plans. Our first visit to Walt Disney World was 4 days. We thought that would be plenty of time. Wrong! We had to skip a lot of things we really wanted to try.
If you want to visit all four theme parks and actually experience the majority of the attractions, parades and shows, you will need at least 5 full days! (Epcot can easily take 2 days all by itself, because in a sense it’s the equivalent of 2 theme parks: Future World and World Showcase).
If you would like to do the major attractions at the theme parks without racing around like a maniac, or you want to try some of the “extras,” like water parks or golf, allow more days. In fact, we think a one-week trip is optimum for a first-timer who wants to enjoy the full experience. Tickets are the most expensive part of most people’s Disney World vacations, and Disney has set up its ticket pricing to encourage trips longer than 4 days: 7-day tickets don’t cost that much more than 4-day tickets.
4. How you’re getting there.
For this, consult the Transportation page here on the site. If you will be flying to Florida, it is a good idea to start checking out airfares right away, and keep checking them. The fares fluctuate wildly and if you catch a good one, you’ll need to grab it quickly.
5. What kind of theme park tickets to buy.
Because Walt Disney World tickets are so expensive (you’ll probably spend more on tickets than you will on your hotel room) this is a critical decision. Look over your itinerary, get out your calculator, take a look at the prices and figure out which tickets make sense for your situation.
Once you’ve decided on what tickets to buy, check out the Ticket Discounts page here on MouseSavers.com to find the best deal on them.
Special note: You need a theme park reservation for the first Walt Disney World theme park you want to visit each day. Before buying tickets, check the park reservation calendar to make sure you can get into the parks you want to visit, then buy your tickets, link the tickets to MyDisneyExperience, then go back to the park reservation calendar to lock in your park reservations. If your plans change, you can change your park reservations later, assuming there’s availability at the park you want to switch to. Park hopping is available from 2:00 pm until park closing; read more about how Park Hopper currently works.
6. Where you will be staying.
First you’ll have to decide whether to stay at an official Disney resort, or at a nearby “off-property” resort. This is a complex decision for many people, to say the least. Keep in mind that while we use the term “off-property” to describe the non-Disney hotels, many of them are quite close and some are actually physically located on Disney-owned land. They just aren’t owned and run by Disney.
Each of the official Disney resorts is unique and special, and the ability to leave the real world behind and experience the Disney magic 24/7 is part of the fun for many people. The Deluxe Disney resorts are especially stunning. When you stay at a Disney resort hotel, you get FREE transfers to and from the airport via Disney’s Magical Express (will end Jan 1, 2022), access to Early Theme Park Entry and some other perks. Staying at a Disney resort gives you direct access to the Disney buses, boats and monorails so you can take a break from driving. The Disney resorts have much larger pools and more recreation options than most off-site hotels.
If you are trying to save as much money as possible, an off-property resort is usually going to be the best value. Families of 5 or more usually find that off-property resorts are an especially good deal, because most of the 5-person options at Disney’s resorts are quite pricey. Good off-property hotels often have larger rooms with more amenities than the official Disney hotels (especially compared to the Value and Moderate resorts, which have standard rooms that feel a bit motel-like). A quality off-property hotel will have service at least as good as a Disney resort, and a “luxury” hotel like the Four Seasons Orlando will typically have better service. If you stay off-property, you will probably want to rent a car, which is an additional expense, but it is generally a faster and better way to get around than the Disney transportation system.
The bottom line is that you can have an excellent vacation staying either on or off property. We have done it both ways multiple times, and we can assure you there are no right or wrong answers. We recommend exploring both options and figuring the bottom-line price and what you get with each. If you can afford to stay more days with one option, we recommend going that way; we’ll always advocate for staying longer if you can swing it. If neither one jumps out as being obviously better for you and this is your “once in a lifetime” trip, we’d go with a Disney resort just to get the full experience. If you think you’ll come back, just pick one option at random; you can always try it the other way on your next visit.
- If you’re considering an on-site resort stay, first read our analysis of the basic differences and best values among the Disney resorts. We have lots of information here on MouseSavers.com about discounts at Disney’s resorts as well as discounts on Disney’s vacation packages. If you will be staying for 5 nights or more at a Disney resort, that’s a big investment and we hope you’ll seriously consider contacting a Disney Specialist travel agent. It costs you nothing to have someone else keep track of all the resort discounts and find you the best deal. They will even rebook your resort reservations if a better discount becomes available. We recommend an excellent Disney Specialist travel agent here on MouseSavers.com.
- If you’re considering non-Disney / off-site hotels — and they’re worth considering, especially if you are on a tight budget and/or have a family of 5 or more — we have visited over a hundred of them around Walt Disney World and picked the very best ones for the MouseSavers Preferred Hotels page. You can book them yourself via the special discount links on our website.
7. How you’re getting from the airport to your hotel (if you’re flying).
There are lots of options. Visit our Transportation page to learn how to save on your transportation to and from the airport.
By the way, if you’re just starting to plan your Disney World vacation and wondering how you are going to afford it, be sure to read the page titled Ways to Save for Your Disney Vacation – a collection of tips and tricks to help you sock away the money for your next trip.