Any links in this post to a merchant may contain an affiliate link, which means that if you click on that link and then buy something, I may earn a commission from it. However, all opinions in this link are 100% mine and 100% honest. If I didn't believe in a particular product, I wouldn't recommend it to you.
So, you’ve decided to go to Disney World for the first time! But, you’re not sure where, or when, to start planning. There is a lot to know about planning your first Disney World trip, and it can get overwhelming. Rest easy though. I’ve put together this step-by-step guide to planning your first Disney World trip to help you with it all. So, let’s get started! (Updated February 9, 2020)
Planning is a must!
A trip to Disney World is NOT the time to “wing it.” Every time someone says they had a horrible time at Disney World, I discover they did no planning or research. So why plan? First of all, Disney World is about the size of San Francisco, with 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, 20+ hotels, a shopping/dining/entertainment district, 4 golf courses, 2 miniature golf courses, and thousands of entertainment options. Secondly, thousands of people visit Disney World everyday. Advance planning will help you navigate crowds better. Third, Disney World is expensive. Planning will allow you to make the most of your precious time and money.
Step 1: Who’s going?
Now, I know that sounds like a dumb place to start! But there’s a reason to start here. You don’t want to plan this trip for months just to throw away those plans at the last minute because someone else decides to join you. Also, the hotel options for a party of 4 are very different than they are for a party of 5. So, now is the time to find out if the grandparents are going with you!
Lastly, and this is a big one, Disney charges everyone 10 and older adult prices. Children between the ages of 3-9 are charged child prices. Children under the age of 3 are FREE. So, if you have multiple kids, this matters! Going before your children turn 10 will save you hundreds of dollars! The same holds true if you go before your child turns 3.
Step 2: When to go?
This will come down to personal preference and family schedules. But, here are a few things to consider when deciding what time of year to go.
The #1 busiest time of year to go to Disney World is Christmas. The week between Christmas and New Years is so busy that the parks shut down due to capacity! It is wall to wall people. I highly recommend picking another week if at all possible. If this is the ONLY week of the entire year you can go, then go into it knowing it will be crazy. If you want to see Disney World all decked out for the holidays, you can see the decorations from the week of Thanksgiving until early January.
The second busiest time of the year is Spring Break. I have been to Disney World a couple of times during Spring Break, and it is a zoo. Once again, if you can go another time, do it. But, one advantage to going in the Spring is that it’s not hot. The mornings and evenings are a little chilly, while the days are comfortable.
If you can, consider going during the school year. The crowds are lower, the temperature are cooler, and the prices may be lower since it’s not a peak time of year.
Summers are busy, but not as busy as Christmas and Spring Break. The one caveat to this is holiday weeks. Summers in Florida are hot and humid. So, it comes down to whether you would rather endure crowds or the heat.
Thanksgiving week is a great time to go if your kids are out of school. The crowds are lower, the weather is great, and the Christmas decorations are all up. This is my favorite time to go to Disney World.
Another good time to go is during the fall months. During September and October, you can celebrate Halloween at the parks. See my post on Halloween at Disney for more details. The crowds and weather are usually perfect during this time too.
Step 3: What’s your budget?
A Disney World trip can be customized to your family’s preferences and budget. So, it is important that when you are planning your first Disney World trip to have a budget in mind because it will guide some of your other decisions. Large or small, you can take a Disney trip on almost any size budget. It may not be exactly what you want, but you can make it work. (See exactly how much a Disney trip will cost you.) Also, if you book your trip directly through Disney and stay on property, you can book it with a minimum deposit of $200. You can then make payments on your trip until 45 days prior to your check-in. See our post Disney World on a dime for ways to save money on your trip.
Step 4: Stay on or off property?
The next important decision to make in planning your first Disney World trip is whether to stay on or off property. Staying at a Disney hotel is more expensive than staying off property. So, if you are on a tight budget, off property may be the best option for you. However, I would recommend staying on property if you can make it work in your budget, even if it means shortening your trip by a few days. In short, staying on property is worth the extra money.
Step 5: Where to stay?
If you decided to stay on property, your next step is to pick a hotel. There are three price levels of hotels at Disney: value, moderate, and deluxe. All of the Disney hotels are highly themed and have great pools. After deciding which price range fits your budget, pick a hotel based on which theme speaks to you most. Each hotel has a few different room categories, depending on view. So, this will give you some wiggle room within your budget.
For your first trip, don’t worry much about location. They are all close to the action, and they all use Disney transportation to access the parks.
If your travel party includes more than 4 people, your options will be a little more limited because most Disney hotel rooms sleep 4 people. There are only a few options on property that will sleep more than 4 per room. Otherwise, you can rent two rooms and request them to be adjoining.
If you have decided to stay off property, then you have many choices. Choose a nearby hotel or rent a vacation home in Orlando. For a vacation rental, try Airbnb.com. For a hotel off property, try one in the Disney Springs area to be almost as close as the Disney hotels.
Step 6: How long to stay?
The next step in planning your first Disney World trip is to decide how long your trip will be. Your budget and hotel choice will have a lot to do with this decision. I recommend staying as long as your budget will allow. Stay at least 4 full days if you can. This will give you one day in each park. Spending a whole week is better because it will give you a couple extra days to do anything you missed in those first 4 days plus experience some of your favorites again. Longer trips are more relaxing than shorter trips because you won’t feel rushed to get everything done.
If your budget won’t allow you to stay in your hotel of choice for 4 or more days, try dropping down a price level. It is more important to stay those extra days than to stay in a fancier hotel. If your budget forces you to choose between a shorter stay on property or a longer stay off property, then choose a shorter stay on property. Read where the magic lives to see why.
Step 7: Park Tickets
The next step in planning your first Disney World trip is to decide on park tickets. Disney park tickets are bought per day. The more days you get, the cheaper they are per day. For 5 or more days, the price of an extra day drops to less than $10 per person. Disney recently changed their pricing structure to vary depending on when you go. Tickets prices during peak season are more expensive than during less crowded times. Visit Disney’s website for more details on the prices of tickets.
Like with your hotel choices, there are ways to make park tickets more budget-friendly. If your budget is tight, cutting out tickets for your arrival and/or departure day is a good way to save some money. There are plenty of things to do outside the parks on those days.
Step 8: Extra Options
You can add on some extra options to your park tickets if you choose. But, they will cost you more money. Let’s talk about them individually.
With the base park ticket, you get into 1 park per day. However, if you want to go to more than one park in the same day, you need to add the park hopper. This will cost you about $55 per person per day. On your first trip, if you only have 1 day to spend in each park, I would suggest skipping park hoppers and save the money. If you will have park tickets for 5 or more days, then get the park hopper. After devoting one day to each park, you can then use your extra days to hop from park to park to revisit your favorite attractions or catch things you missed on previous days.
Don’t worry if you can’t afford park hoppers on your first trip. This cut won’t detract from the enjoyment of your trip. There is more than enough to do in each park to keep you occupied.
Park Hopper Plus
You can also add the Park Hopper Plus option to your base park ticket. This option gives you the park hopper plus a number of visits to the two water parks, one of the golf courses, ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex and/or the two mini golf courses. This option will cost you $80 dollars more per person per day. Depending on your budget and family’s preferences, this may be a good choice for you. However, you can still have a great time without it.
Step 9: Disney Dining Plan
The dining plan works for some, but not for others. We love it because it lets us prepay for food and allows us to eat better than if we paid as we went. Also, the restaurants are a big part of the Disney experience for us. However, if your family doesn’t eat much or would rather snack all day instead of sit down in a restaurant, then the plan will be a waste of money for you.
If you plan on eating a table service meal each day, you need to seriously look at getting a dining plan. I can tell you that for my family of three (2 adults and 1 child under age 10), we have never had a table service meal that was less than $100. Most of them are between $110-125 for the three of us. Remember, it is a theme park, and food is expensive.
The Details of the Plan
If you are staying on property and book your trip as a package, you can add the Disney Dining Plan to your vacation. Basically, this is a way to pay for your meals in advance of your trip. The cost of the plan will be added into the price of your vacation package. There are three different dining plans. With each of them, each person gets a refillable mug for use during the entirety of your trip. You can use your dining credits at any participating restaurant across property in any combination you want before midnight of your check-out day.
Quick Service Dining Plan
The quick service dining plan will give each person in your party 2 quick service meals (think fast food) and 2 snacks per night of your stay. Each meal comes with a drink. Adults can get either an alcoholic or nonalcoholic drink as part of the plan. In 2020, the quick service dining plan will cost you $55 per person age 10 and over per night and $26 per child age 3-9 per night.
Disney Dining Plan
This is the plan my family always gets. It entitles each person in your party to 1 table service meal, 1 quick service meal, and 2 snacks per night. The table service meals include dessert. Each adult can get either an alcoholic or nonalcoholic drink with each meal. Gratuity is not included with the plan. This dining plan will cost you $78 per person age 10 and over per night and $30.50 per child age 3-9 per night.
Deluxe Dining Plan
On the Deluxe Dining Plan, you will get 3 meals (table service or quick service) and 2 snacks per person per night. Table service meals include dessert. Adults can get nonalcoholic or alcoholic drinks with meals. This meal plan will cost you $119 per person age 10 and over per night and $47.50 per child age 3-9 per night.
Step 10: Get the App
The My Disney Experience app is a necessary and convenient addition to your phone. Not only can you make your dining reservations and fastpass selections on it, but it will keep track of all of your plans while you are on the go. The app also gives you wait times of rides, park hours, and lots of other information you will want to have at your fingertips during your trip.
Step 11: Dining Reservations
The next step in planning your first Disney World trip is to think about dining reservations. Regardless of whether you get the dining plan, if you want to eat at a table service restaurant during your trip, you need to make advance reservations. Depending on the time of year you visit, many, if not all, of Disney’s restaurants will fill up with reservations. This means that if you don’t make reservations, you may find yourself with only quick service options or a very long wait to get a table. So, I highly recommend making reservations in advance!
Disney has every kind of restaurant imaginable: buffets, character meals, family style places, and a la carte restaurants. They have casual, kid-friendly places and fancy, gourmet restaurants. So, do some research to find choices that will appeal to your family before making reservations. A good resource for Disney dining is Allears.net. They have updated menus for all of the Disney restaurants.
You can make dining reservations as early as 180 days in advance of check in. If you are staying on property, you can make your reservations 180 day prior to your arrival date and then for 10 days after that arrival date. This allows you to make reservations for your whole trip at one time. Make reservations on Disney’s website or by calling 407-939-1947. If you want to eat in the castle at Cinderella’s Royal Table or some of the other very popular places, you need to book that reservation as early as possible on the morning of the 180 mark! If you are staying off property, you must wait until 180 days before each day of your trip to make dining reservations for that day.
Step 12: Touring Plans
A touring plan is basically your plan for what to do when while in the park. At the Magic Kingdom, you will easily need 2 full days to do it all! So, in order to make your trip more productive and enjoyable, you need to have a game plan before arriving. Don’t waste your time in the parks looking at each other and asking, “What do you want to do next?” Decide that before you get there.
When planning your first trip to Disney World, I recommend getting a touring plan from touringplans.com. They have many plans to fit the needs of any family. These plans help you plot out your time in the parks to minimize waiting and maximize fun! They are an invaluable resource!
Between 180 and 60 days prior to your arrival, you need to look at the park hours for the days you will be there and decide which park to visit on which day. Find the park hours at Touring Plans or on Disney’s website. Please note that each park has its own hours independent of the other parks. Park hours may be different from one day to the next. Also, if you are staying on property, take note of which park is having Extra Magic Hours on each day. These allow on-site guests to get into a park either 1 hour early or stay up to 2 hours later outside of the normal operating hours.
Step 13: Fastpass+
Fastpasses are the next thing you need to plan in advance of your trip. A fastpass is Disney’s way of allowing you to reserve a time slot to experience a particular attraction. You can use them for rides, shows, or fireworks. For rides, your fastpass will give you a 1 hour window to go to enter the fastpass line. This line is shorter and will save you a considerable amount of time waiting for the more popular rides. For shows and fireworks, it will give you a time shortly before the start of the show to arrive and sit in a reserved section.
You can reserve 3 fastpasses per person per day in advance of your arrival.
These must all be in the same park. Each person in your party can have different fastpasses, but only the person with the fastpass will be allowed in the fastpass line. Once you have used your 3 for the day, you can either go to a kiosk in the park or use the My Disney Experience app on your phone to schedule another one. You can continue to get a new fastpass after using the previous one for the remainder of the day. Once you’ve used those first 3, your next ones can be in the same park or a different park.
On property guests can book fastpasses 60 days prior to arrival. Off property guests can book fastpasses 30 days in advance. This is another benefit of staying on property.
Step 14: Customize MagicBands
If you are staying at a Disney hotel, you will receive a MagicBand from Disney prior to your arrival. These are the greatest things ever! They are plastic bands, similar to a FitBit. The MagicBand will contain your hotel room key, your park tickets, your fastpasses, and your dining plan, all on your wrist! You can also link your credit card to it so you can charge your purchases right to your band. Each person in your party age 3 and over will get a MagicBand.
Disney usually ships these to you 10 days prior to your arrival. Be sure to go to Disney’s website and customize everyone’s bands at least 11 days prior to arrival. You can pick the color or for $10 you can choose a specialty band. You can also choose what name to be on the inside of each band. This is helpful for remembering who’s is who’s. If you are not staying on property, you can buy a MagicBand and then link your tickets and reservations onto it.
Step 15: Online Check-in
Almost there! The last thing you should do if you are staying on-site is online check-in. Starting 10 days prior to your arrival, you can go to My Disney Experience and check into your hotel online. This will let Disney know what time to expect you on your arrival day so they can have everything ready for you. Also, during online check-in, provide your cell phone number and/or your email address to Disney. On your arrival day, when your room is ready, they will email and/or text you with your room number! This means you can skip the front desk and go straight to your room!
Step 16: Enjoy Your Trip!
That’s it! You have successfully booked and planned your first Disney World trip! Now, go have a blast and make some wonderful memories with your family! One last bit of advice: it’s not about seeing and doing everything (that’s impossible!), it’s about making memories and having fun with your loved ones. Have a great trip! Be sure to come back and let me know if this guide was helpful! For more help planning your trip, read my best resources, quick tips, and packing tips. Happy travels!