Disney Vacation Planning According to Me

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train SignThere are as many schools of though on Disney vacation planning as there are attractions at Walt Disney World!  If you like the excitement and anticipation of looking forward to a Disney vacation – if the planning is nearly as much fun as the vacation itself, this post is for you!  Let’s talk planning timeline, want to?

Note:  Today’s post strictly covers my tips and suggestions for planning a trip to Walt Disney World.  In a separate article, I’ll compile my tips and tricks for planning a cruise aboard Disney Cruise Line – stay tuned.

Getting Started

Not long ago, I offered a tutorial called, “5 Ways to Ruin Your Own Disney Vacation“.  There are perils involved with both over- and under-planning!  The key is to plan just the right amount!  Epcot's Iconic Spaceship EarthFor me, 12 months (or a little longer) is the perfect planning timeframe for a Walt Disney World Vacation.  It allows me to strategize and choose my vacation options in phases – Advance planning to this degree ensures me the maximum number of options to choose from (I make selections as soon as Disney lets me!) and at the same time, I get to have fun researching, dreaming, scheming…you get the idea.

Step 1 – Decide when you can go and how you’ll get there.  Driving?  Flying?  By Train?  If you’re driving a long way, this may eat up a chunk of your vacation time.  Flying may take a big bite out of your vacation budget.  Will you want to go during the absolute busiest times?  Spring Break, Thanksgiving week, Christmas time – will all be more crowded and expensive.  Best practice – select a couple of weeks, if possible, and price them out using the rest of the steps in this plan.

Building at Disney's Old Key West ResortStep 2. Do a little resort recon.  There are a LOT of resources available – Books and websites both offer excellent information on choosing a location on Walt Disney World property that works for your travel party.  I strongly recommend staying on property (because of the Disney Bubble).  Please consider the number of people traveling with you, your budget, and what’s most important to you with regards to amenities, location, and dining options.  Be mindful of how you think you’ll spend most days – away from the resort enjoying as many rides and attractions as possible? Soaking up the sun poolside?  A little of both?  Compare staying a couple of days longer at a Value or Moderate resort versus a shorter stay at a Deluxe.  Not all resorts are created equal – pick one that works best for your needs.  Choose your resort as far out as possible and book it!

Step 3.  Think about FOOD!  Will you want to bring some of your own?  (We do that – checkOlivia's Tomato-Mozzarella Salad here for details.)  Will you be happy eating mostly quick/counter service foods?  Do you want some sit-down meals or dinner shows?  Fine dining perhaps?  Go back to those books and websites – look at menus, read reviews, make a plan and a budget.  You can find my tips on dining plans here and here.  Lots of people purchase a Disney Dining Plan – it may not always be the most economical way to buy food at Walt Disney World, but for many people, knowing they’ve budgeted and pre-paid for their food expense is a huge convenience, worth the price.

The Flying Fish Cafe / Walt Disney World BoardwalkStep 4. At the 180-day mark, book all the table service meals you’ve planned in Step 2.  That’s right!  Six months before you go to Walt Disney World, you will need to book your Advance Dining Reservations (ADRs).  This may sound ridiculous, but a nice dinner or dinner show in a very popular restaurant needs to be booked 6 months in advance.  If you don’t want to do this, that’s okay – just know that, depending on what time of year you’re traveling, your dining options may be extremely narrow if you wait until right before you go or – gasp! – after you’ve arrived at Walt Disney World to try to snag an ADR.  Even if you only have your heart set on 2 or 3 places, get them booked!

Step 5 – Exactly 60 days out, book your FastPass+ selections via the My Disney Experience Peter Pan's Flight / Fantasyland / Magic Kingdomwebsite.  It’s important to link up all members of your group first, so don’t wait until the last minute to link.  Some rookies tend to make this harder than it has to be by over thinking choices.  You will want to know height requirements for different rides and also which rides are super thrilling versus the milder attractions.  Since FastPasses do not cost extra, this is a great time to get the entire family / travel party involved in picking which rides, shows, parades, or nighttime shows are most important to the group.  All you really need to keep in mind is where and when you’ve booked any Advance Dining Reservations and make sure your FastPass+ selections won’t interfere with dining plans (and the travel time needed to get to restaurants).  There are a LOT of resources available to help you – take advantage of them, this step can be confusing!

Walt Disney World MagicBandRight now, once you book your trip, Walt Disney World sends you reminders of the important booking windows I’ve mentioned.  You’ll get customizable Disney MagicBands to wear during your vacation that serve as your park ticket, resort room key, and, if you like, a way to touch-to-pay for any and everything in stores and restaurant.  You can also pre-purchase the MemoryMaker photo package before you go (another budgeting tool!).

In between all the steps detailed above, research things like typical Orlando weather for the time of year you’ll be visiting, what shoes you’ll need (you’ll be walking a LOT), if any restaurants you’ve booked have dress codes, etc.  Make packing lists, use a fun countdown calendar, heck – get your group some matching tee-shirts if that’s your thing.  With my plan, you have plenty of time for all of that!

Planning not your thing?  Use a travel agent – there’s absolutely no extra expense to you AND they’ll take care of all the steps I mentioned for you!

Your turn!  How long do you need to plan a Disney vacation?  Do you have any steps to add to my plan?  What planning information would help you most in future posts?  C’mon, don’t be shy – leave a comment, please.



My Disney Experience – A Fair and Balanced Review

WDW Bus Stop at Old Key WestUp until our recent visit to Walt Disney World, I could only speculate about how I would use all the new bells and whistles of the My Disney Experience, MyMagic+, FastPass+, and MagicBand.  I researched, I planned, I chose my ADRs (Advance Dining Reservations) 180 days in advance, I purchased MemoryMaker, I customized my Magic Band, I selected my FastPasses 60 days before I would need them.  I played by the rules, so to speak, and fulfilled what I considered all the new requirements for a visit to my favorite vacation destination.

The Good News:  For the most part, the WHOLE of our experience was a positive one.  I’m going to be completely honest in the rest of this article – not to whine, but to tell you how our experience really was – for us.  We always have been and still are HUGE Disney fans.  Please don’t misunderstand comments that seem to be complaints – to be fair and balanced, I need to point out areas that can be improved or that didn’t work well for our family.WDW Mickey Pretzel

We did not experience any glitches with linking our party in the My Disney Experience / MyMagic+ system, selecting FastPasses, etc.  The convenience of using a MagicBand for resort room access was awesome!  Our MagicBands were comfortable, lightweight, and non-irritating.  After selecting a PIN for use with our MagicBands for charging purchases, I’m certain we did spend quite a bit more money than intended – the process was so darned easy to use!  Touch the key pad, enter the 4-digit pin, enjoy your purchase.  Snacks, souvenirs, meals, drinks – the bill really racks up fast!

The whole FastPass+ thing was fine, but not as great as I’d imagined.  I was, perhaps, a bit overly optimistic.  We left a lot of FastPass selections unused!  Crowd levels were such that, for the most part, we didn’t need FastPasses for any other than e-ticket (headliner) rides and attractions.  Being forced to select 3 then only needing one or two Waiting for Toy Story Midway Maniameant that if we never used all 3 on a particular day, we totally ruined our chances to select more.  Yes, we could have changed our selections to something else in the same park, but then we’d have been more or less “forced” to ride out those passes to be eligible to get more – and we wanted more, especially for a different park.  Plus, the addition of the tiered FP systems in Epcot and the Studios really proved to be challenging and not as good as the old FP system for our family (your experience may be completely different!).

Getting into the parks seemed to be a LOT slower than in the past.  Especially for us since Raymond’s MagicBand almost never worked properly.  Remember Key to The World cards?  How you fed them into the card reader then the fingerprint reader’s light would come on?  Well now you touch the Mickey on your MagicBand to a reader and wait for a light to swirl around and around (on the reader, while you’re touching Mickey to it) before the swirling light becomes a bright, solid light – THEN the light comes on for the fingerprint DSCN3367reader.  Then you wait for the whole shebang to turn green- it’s much slower than the card reader!  Especially when one member of your party has trouble almost every time.  In Raymond’s case, the Cast Member by the MagicBand reader would have him try multiple times before calling over a Senior Cast Member with a hand held reader – who would read Raymond’s MagicBand, call him by name, and give him the go-ahead to enter.  This would have been okay if it only happened once, but we visited two parks a day and the process got tedious in a hurry.  It also felt like we were…how do I put this…appearing suspect.  I wasn’t embarrassed, really, but – we just felt singled out, stared at, scrutinized, again and again.  When you’re trying to use Morning Extra Magic Hours and you get held up every time…I’ll stop complaining now, you get the idea.

Splash Mountain Ride PhotoSo – to wrap it all up for you…

MagicBands – very convenient when they work properly.  Highly wearable – no complaints about comfort (I kept looking at mine as if it would tell time).  If Disney really wants this to be convenient, they’ll find a way to attach your discounts (Tables in Wonderland, DVC, Annual Pass) so you don’t have to carry all the cards!

MemoryMaker / PhotoPass – easier to use than the old system – just hold your arm out post-picture-taking for a quick scan of a MagicBand and you’re on your way.  Ride photos, character dining pics, park photos all together for one price with MemoryMaker.  If you’re Family Pic at Disney's Boardwalkthinking about it, pre-purchase for the $50 discount.  You can read my justification for forking over the $149 here.

FastPass+ – There’s a definite learning curve here.  I think I can do better on our next visit.  I strongly dislike the must-choose-and-use-three at the same park before getting the option to hop and pick again.  I also wasn’t a huge fan of having to use a kiosk to pick the fourth, fifth, etc. (versus being able to use the app, which you can’t).

MyMagic+ – There’s still some work to be done.  I believe the app is not as user-friendly as it could (and should) be.  It’s so slow!  Even when we were in a park – SLOW!!!Meg and Joe at Disney's Hollywood Studios

We had a GREAT vacation!  None of the problems we experienced were more than momentary annoyances.  No matter what kind of change you’re faced with, there’s always a period of adjustment.  I feel certain that Disney will address the existing system glitches.  I believe they will listen to guest feedback and make some additional tweaks here and there.  I am very much looking forward to our next visit to Walt Disney World in October to celebrate our 25th Anniversary – our first trip without children since my first visit in 1990!

Tim over at Dad for Disney has a great article on new versus old FastPass systems.  Check it out here.

If you’ve been to Walt Disney World recently, how was your experience with the new system?







First Time Using MyMagic+ / FastPass+ Walt Disney World Plans

Cinderella Castle in Walt Disney World at NightThe results of this week’s Disney Plan-a-Palooza?  Pretty successful!  I thought I’d go ahead and share our plans as an example for you if you’re planning a trip and haven’t yet used Magic Bands or FastPass+.  This will be our first time to use the new system and I’d love to hear some honest feedback.  Do you think this plan is solid?  Bear in mind, we are (have always been) diehard, commando-style Walt Disney World vacationers – but I still feel this plan has enough free time built into it for us to stop and enjoy the Disney magic.  Post dinner hours are unplanned so we can decide last-minute if we want to try to take in a show (Fantasmic, Wishes, or Illuminations).  For sure we will see Wishes and the Main Street Electrical Parade at the Magic Kingdom at least twice.

We arrive on Sunday, leave on Saturday.  We’re staying at Old Key West – we’ve never stayed there before, but it’s an extremely economical use of our DVC points.  Most of our points are being used at Bay Lake Tower for our (Raymond and I) 25th Anniversary trip in October for Epcot’s Food and Wine Festival.  Note:  In these plans, FastPasses (FP+) are listed by start time only, we have an hour once the start time begins to use them.WDW Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

Here’s the plan:

Sunday afternoon:  Magic Kingdom – Lunch / Snack on the run. FP+’s:

  • Space Mountain (1:50 pm)
  • Journey of the Little Mermaid (2:50 pm)
  • Big Thunder Mountain (4:50 pm).

Then we’ll walk around and enjoy being in the Magic Kingdom until we have to leave for dinner.  Dinner is at 7:30 in Downtown Disney at Raglan Road.

Monday Morning:  Extra Magic Hour (EMH) – Animal Kingdom at 8:00 am.  Planning to ride Expedition Everest, then the Kilimanjaro Safari, then take it easy and play it by ear until after lunch (counter service). Eat a fairly early lunch and park hop!

Toy Story Midway ManiaMonday Afternoon:  Disney’s Hollywood Studios – FP+’s:

  • Toy Story Midway Mania (1:30 pm)
  • Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (3:13 pm)
  • Star Tours (4:15 pm).

Dinner is at 7:30 on the Boardwalk at the Flying Fish Cafe.

Tuesday Morning:  Extra Magic Hour (EMH) – Epcot at 8:00 am.  Planning to ride Soarin’ then leisurely enjoy the morning doing whatever appeals to us until enjoying an early lunch (counter service).

Tuesday Afternoon: Back to Animal Kingdom!  FP+’s:

  • Kali River Rapids (12:30 pm)Expedition Everest's Forbidden Mountain
  • Expedition Everest (2:10 pm)
  • DINOSAUR (3:15 pm).

A quick bus ride away, we’ll enjoy dinner at Boma in the Animal Kingdom Lodge (7:00 pm).  Pre-dinner animal viewing on the savannah overlook is a must!

Wednesday Morning:  EMH – Disney’s Hollywood Studios at 8:00 am.  Planning to ride Toy Story Midway Mania and Rock’n’ Roller Coaster first then relax and see what the wait times are for MuppetVision 3D, The Great Movie Ride, Tower of Terror and more.  It’s Raymond’s birthday, so we’ll defer to his picks – he LOVES Rock’n’ Roller Coaster – it’s his most favorite ride in the World.  Won’t surprise me if we ride it more than once if the standby line wait time is not too terrible.

The Seas With Nemo and FriendsWednesday Afternoon:  Epcot – FP+’s:

  • The Seas With Nemo & Friends (2:45 pm)
  • Soarin’ (3:55 pm)
  • Spaceship Earth (5:00 pm).

Dinner in Epcot’s World Showcase at Tutto Italia (7:15 pm).  After Spaceship Earth we can pick up a cold beverage to enjoy as we may your way to the Italy Pavilion.

Thursday Morning:  EMH – Magic Kingdom at 8:00 am.  Our plans are to ride the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train first.  It should be open by then and if I can score a FastPass for it on Sunday or Friday afternoon, I’ll do that for sure.  After the Dwarfs, we’ll be free to do what we please – Haunted Mansion, Pirates, and Jungle Cruise are must-do attractions for us, so we’ll be trying to fit those in.  This is where the longer-than-ever-before standby lines will cause us the most pain.

Thursday Afternoon: Epcot – FP+’s – Don’t laugh.  We only really needed/wanted one FastPass Crush the Sea Turtlethis day, but felt obligated to select three so…

  • Journey into Imagination with Figment(2:00 pm) – I KNOW!  You don’t have to say it.
  • Test Track (3:00 pm)
  • Turtle Talk with Crush (4:20 pm).  I don’t care if it’s supposed to be for little kids…I LOVE it.

After that we’ll scoot on back to our resort so we can relax before getting cleaned up for our 7:45 ADR at 1900 Park Fare.  I want to get some great pictures at this character meal (Cinderella, the Prince, Lady Tremaine and the Step Sisters) and would prefer The Fam look a little less park-worn for the evening.

Friday Morning: Disney’s Hollywood Studios – 8:00 am.  It’s Star Wars Weekend!  This will be our day to do as we please while enjoying the festive party atmosphere that Star Wars Weekends always bring.  Of course we’ll dash for either Toy Story Midway Mania or Rock’n’ Roller Coaster first thing, but after that, we’ll be taking it easy and soaking up the sights…that is until we enjoy our noon ADR at Hollywood Brown Derby for lunch.  Then we hop!

Friday Afternoon:  Magic Kingdom – FP+’s are for…

  • Splash Mountain (3:15)
  • Space Mountain (4:15)
  • Big Thunder Mountain (8:00)

Being our last day, we’ll be trying to make the most of it.  Counter Service for dinner will allow us more time to walk around and say farewell until next time.

So, if you were taking this trip, what would you change?  If you’ve got any pointers or tips to share about Old Key West, I’d love to hear them – especially pertaining to which bus stops are the best!


Go Disney! FastPass+ Reminders via Snail Mail

FastPass+ Mailer EnvelopeWell, I’ve got to hand it to the folks at Disney.  They are doing absolutely everything imaginable to make sure people are well-informed about MyMagic+, My Disney Experience, and most importantly today, FastPass+.  One week shy of the date we’ll be able to begin making our FastPass+ selections, we received a reminder in the mail….snail mail.  Not a postcard, not a letter, but a snazzy little booklet delivered in (continuing the Incredibles theme) a Dash-adorned envelope.

We’ve already received the box with the booklet, magnet, and flash-drive – all those components working together to thoroughly explain every aspect of Disney’s new park-touring system.  The magnet was for posting important date reminders – 60 days out, we can make FastPass+ selections and begin online check-in.  The magnet even (nope, not kidding) gives the date of our first vacation day with a reminder to “Start your incredible vacation!”  We FastPass+ Reminder by Mailwatched the video on the flash-drive tell us how to use the My Disney Experience site and what to expect with Magic Bands.  We followed the directions for downloading the mobile app and combined all members of our travel party.

This latest redundant and costly mailing perplexes me.  I don’t understand why we couldn’t just be reminded via email like we are when we sail with Disney Cruise Line.  I’ve been hearing over and over about the expense of the entire MyMagic+/Magic Band program – this snail mail seems like overkill.  Expensive overkill.  If I’m not capable of receiving and reading email reminders, it’s highly doubtful I’ll be able to navigate aspects of the new system well since it’s very dependent on my ability to use technology successfully.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the effort, but honestly, I’m starting to wonder if the Disney Company has doubts about the average American’s ability to use a computer, a smart phone, or the internet.  They seem overly concerned that we might not be able to remind ourselves of important pre-vacation planning dates on our calendars.  Are so many guests arriving FastPass+ Reminder Bookletunprepared and uninformed?  Are the numbers of guests that could have (should have) booked FastPass+ in advance of their arrival, but did not do so, in such unanticipated volume that there really are large numbers of needlessly unhappy visitors?  This worries me quite a bit.  I’m still hearing reports from the parks of very long lines at the FP+ kiosks – are those all off-site visitors or are there people in those lines who should have made those FP+ selections in advance?  That would certainly explain the reminder overkill.

What do you think?  If you’ve recently visited Walt Disney World, did you make your FP+ choices in advance (the way Disney wants you to)?  Or did you find yourself in standby lines because you didn’t know how the system was supposed to work?  If you’re planning a trip this year, do you know about the important scheduling dates for your vacation?  Do you want/need continuously mailed reminders to keep you on your toes?  Am I being too critical?  I believe I’d rather see the money spent on new rides and attractions instead of on printing and mailing fancy booklets to tell me information I completely understood the first time.