DISNEY WORLD PLANNING GUIDE
Welcome to the Disney World Planning Guide and thank you for being a Base Camp member! This page will be regularly updated with new information as it becomes available, so be sure to bookmark it for easy, future access!
This guide consists of the ten steps to follow when planning your adventure and covers topics such as budgeting, what to pack, booking your hotel stay, and creating a daily plan. If while reading this you need a little extra help, don't hesitate to contact us. Or, as a Base Camp member you can request a free Embark Session where we can answer your questions, help you with a specific topic, or just walk you through this planning process.
This guide was updated on January 1st, 2021 to include the reintroduction of park hopping
SET YOUR BUDGET
With some resorts’ starting rates at over $500/night and ticket prices at over $100 per day, a Disney World Adventure can get expensive from the outset. Therefore, before you embark on planning your adventure, we recommend that you sit down and figure out how much you want to spend on your vacation.
First, a general budgeting tip: figure out how much you want to spend before getting your hopes up for a specific resort or length of stay! If you don’t, you are more likely to end up spending more than you are comfortable with budget wise.
Once you have defined your budget, it's time to start figuring out how to spend it! Are you the type of person who prefers to spend more per day (staying in luxury hotels, eating nice meals) or would you rather have as many days as possible and maybe cut back on the spending in some areas? Or, are you somewhere in the middle? In order to help make these decisions, we recommend viewing your costs as a combination of cost per day and the number of days.
Once you understand your cost per day, you can now make decisions on where to stay and what dining choices to target.
The first major daily expense will be the resort cost. Resorts at Disney are divided into Deluxe, Moderate and Value, with Deluxe costing around $500, Moderate $250, and Value $150. Prices do fluctuate around these numbers, but generally this is a good starting point for understanding this expense. There are also numerous off-property hotels ranging from $50 to over $300 (all hotel costs are per night).
Most of the resorts also have options to upgrade your room to one with a better view, different theming, or better amenities. From a simple $20 a night upgrade to move from a view of the parking lot to the view of a garden to over $500 to get access to the club level, there are numerous options for enhancing your stay at various price points.
The second major daily expense is meals. Dining at Disney World is also divided into three types (are you sensing a theme?!). There is signature and all you can eat dining, which runs at around $60 per plate. Then there are other table service locations that will run at around $30 per plate. Finally, you have quick service options, which will generally cost around $15 per plate.
The final daily cost will be your tickets. Tickets prices per day will vary depending on the number of days you have purchased as well as when you are going. As you can see in the table below, the price per day varies greatly based on these factors
*Disney is currently not selling 8 day tickets, prices shown are for a 7 day ticket for 2020 adventures.
For 2021 adventures you will also have the option of adding on the park hopper option which allows you to go to multiple parks each day. The cost for this is $85 per ticket (not per day) for trips of 4 days or more. For shorter trips the cost per ticket decreases to $75 for 2 or 3 days and to $65 for one day.
Finally, don’t forget to budget for the additional cost of airfare if you plan to fly to Orlando or gas and meals on your travel day if you choose to drive.
Saving money is a frequently asked question when planning a Disney World adventure. There are definitely ways to save about 5 to 10% throughout the process, but the biggest savings come from two very simple choices. Can you cut back on either your cost per day or your length of stay and still have just as magical of an adventure? The answer is without a doubt, YES. And, it could save you up to 50%!
To save on your cost per day, you can have a great time in a Moderate or Value resort, or even stay off site, while eating at mostly quick service dining areas with a few more expensive dinners mixed in. This is our favorite way to still enjoy a great Disney themed resort and great dining without feeling like we’re missing out.
Alternatively, you don’t have to “make a week of it.” A 4 day adventure can provide a great trip while not breaking the bank. If you prioritize your time effectively and have a solid plan, you can still do everything you want to do! Another perk of a shorter adventure, is you may be able to save a little money on airfare as a midweek flight to or from Orlando is typically less expensive than flying on the weekend.
If reducing your length of stay or cutting back on deluxe dining and resort options isn’t for you, there are definitely still a few ways to save around 5% on your overall trip. One of the easiest ways is to buy discounted Disney gift cards. You can buy these at Target (a RedCard membership is required to receive the discount) and some Big Box stores for 5% off and use them to pay for your room, tickets and food (when purchased directly from Disney). Additionally, you can find similar discounts on rooms and tickets at third party online travel agents. Check out Undercover Tourist or Get Away Today for these discounts.
Another great way to save money is with the Disney Rewards Visa Card. With this card you can save 10% at select dining locations and on some merchandise purchases. However, there are a few restrictions. The dining discount is only available at 25 specific locations and you must make a $50 purchase to get the discount on merchandise. Nevertheless, 10% is a great deal when leveraged effectively; specifically at the few great dining options that they do cover, such as Cape May Cafe, Boma, and Whispering Canyon.
A final tip is to check the Disney World webpage. Discounts of up to 40% are occasionally offered directly from Disney for dining packages and resort stays. They are currently running a deal for visits through April 2021 for 35% off rooms as well as separate deal that gives you two additional days in the parks when you purchase at least a 4 night stay and 3 day tickets.
CHOOSE A DATE
Choosing a date for your adventure is a crucial component of traveling to Disney World, as a week sooner or later can make or break the enjoyment of your time. Understanding projected weather, ticket prices, park hours, and events/festivals will help you make a wise decision on dates for your trip.
We also highly recommend consulting crowd levels via a crowd calendar. You can find several crowd calendars online that can give you a great place to start on this decision. The best crowd calendar can be found at Touring Plans. There is a fee associated with the calendar, but their research has been our go to source for all crowd data for years (let us know if you would like a subscription, we often are able to give a few away for free!). Undercover Tourist also has a great FREE crowd calendar that we would recommend. Historically, the best times to travel considering all factors are late January to early February, April to early May, September and October, and the week after Thanksgiving through the first week of December.
Before moving on, you must also check to make sure that there is availability on the Disney Park Pass System for the dates you have chosen. This system was implemented when Disney reopened and requires that everyone who visits a park have both a park ticket and a reservation for each day in the park. You can make those reservations on Disney’s website after you purchase your tickets and we talk more about this below. However, at this point you should ensure that there is availability for all of the days you are planning on going.
BOOK YOUR HOTEL
If your budget allows, we highly recommend staying on property. Along with fantastic customer service, not having to worry about transportation to and from where you want to go, and getting extra hours at the parks (this perk is currently not available), a Disney Resort stay is a great benefit. If you do choose to stay off property, consider a hotel that offers similar benefits to Disney properties. To make the decision of staying at a Disney Resort or at a nearby hotel easier, we’ve outlined some of our favorite places to stay.
As we mentioned above, if you decide to stay at a Disney Resort property, the next step is to decide which level of resort your budget allows. As a rule of thumb, the price point for the different resort categories is as follows:
Value: $150 per night
Moderate: $250 per night
Deluxe: $500 per night
Keep in mind that these rates definitely fluctuate based on date and actual hotel you choose to book.
WHEN AND HOW TO BOOK
You should plan on booking your Disney Resort at least nine months in advance of your vacation, and booking nearby properties around three to six months in advance. Booking early will allow you to ensure that you get the room you desire (number of beds, size of beds, view, location), as many of the rooms tend to sell out early. Disney will often provide discounts closer to booking, therefore you can always update your reservation to take advantage of any deals that pop up.
We enjoy booking our stay directly with Disney due to the value of the customer service you get. Additionally, we always purchase gift cards at a 5% RedCard discount at Target prior to travel and use those to pay for the resort stay as well as for food and souvenirs. This ends up saving us $250 on a $5000 trip. You can occasionally find similar discounts at online travel agents like Undercover Tourist if you choose not to use the gift cards.
When booking your Disney Resort, you have the option of also purchasing park tickets as a Disney Package. While there are definitely advantages to doing this, there are some drawbacks as well.
Disney Packages can be purchased directly through Disney or through a third party travel agent. When purchased through either channel you will be required to pay a $200 down payment and can change or cancel your trip up until 30 days prior to your start date (Disney is currently waiving this requirement and is allowing cancellations up through the date of check-in). At the 30 days prior point you will have to pay for the entire trip (resort stay + tickets). If you do choose to cancel, your down payment will be refunded as well. If you purchased with Disney directly, a few days before you have to make your final payment, just grab your gift cards and call up Disney to process the payment with your gift cards to save your 5%!
Disney does offer more flexibility on room only reservations (when not purchasing a Disney Package). For this option you will be required to pay the cost of the first night's stay as a down payment and you can change or cancel until 1 week prior to your trip (Disney is also currently waiving this requirement and is allowing cancellations up through the date of check-in). Additionally, you will never have to pay the full amount until the end of your stay. You will then have to purchase your tickets separately and can save 10% by purchasing through a third party! However, these tickets require a specific start date and are generally non-refundable. Be sure to check the modification and return policy before purchasing tickets from a third party.
HOTEL BOOKING OPTIONS
TICKET PURCHASE OPTIONS
* There are some third party ticket options that do not require the selection of a date. Specifically, those purchased through the government for Department of Defense and Active Duty personnel do not come with this restriction. Additionally, Undercover Tourist does offer a 90 day refund after a 5% fee on some tickets.
With the current uncertainty in the world and the new park pass reservation system, we recommend that you purchase the Disney Package at this time. The added flexibility with ticket dates is a huge value at this point. If you choose to stay at a nearby hotel rather than a Disney Resort or to purchase the room only through Disney, the next sections will talk through how to best proceed.
MAKE PARK RESERVATIONS
As we mentioned above, the Disney Park Pass System was implemented after re-opening to manage crowd levels within the parks and limit overall capacity. You now must have a reservation to enter the park, even if you have a park ticket. Currently you can make a reservation for any day up through January 2022.
To make a reservation you must already have purchased your tickets. If you purchased a Disney Package (hotel + tickets), you can go ahead and make them as soon as you make your down payment. You will need to select your days for each park at this point. We would recommend prioritizing extra days in Hollywood Studios or Magic Kingdom. As you get further in the planning process, you might be able to adjust your days if there is availability to do so.
If you did not purchase a Disney Package (hotel + tickets), you will need to purchase park tickets before making these reservations. Currently, most days are not fully booked therefore you can wait until you are confident in your date of travel to purchase tickets. We do recommend making your purchase and locking in your dates around 3 months prior to your trip. You should also keep a regular eye on the Park Pass availability calendar to make sure that the days of your trip are not getting booked.
For third party tickets we have found that the best deals can be found through Undercover Tourist or Get Away Today. You can generally find discounts of around 5%-10%. Additionally, Military and Department of Defense civilians can get a similar discount through Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) benefits site. Once you purchase your tickets, you will need to link them to your My Disney Experience account so that you can make your Park Pass reservations.
PLANNING FOR PARK HOPPER
The Park Hopper ticket option will allow you to visit multiple parks in one day, while the Park Hopper+ ticket will give you access to the water parks (Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon) as well as other experiences throughout Disney World (NBA Experience, Mini-Golf, 9-hole Golf, Foot Golf).
We generally recommend the Park Hopper or Park Hopper+ option for most travelers as it will allow you to follow our favorite method for visiting any theme park.
Get there early and go, go, go!
Leave after lunch and enjoy a nap or pool time
Head back out to dinner and a relaxing evening in a different park
The reason this works so well is that rest and variety during each day is key to not burning out during your adventure.
The cost to add the Park Hopper option to your ticket is $85 per person for all 4 or more day tickets. The price is reduced to $75 for 2 or 3 day tickets and $65 for a single day ticket. The Park Hopper+ will cost you an additional amount per day; check out the Disney Ticket Calendar for more details.
Finally, we do recommend that you purchase these options in advance so that you can more effectively plan your adventure. But you can always add on these options to any ticket once you arrive. Therefore, if you are hesitant about committing to a day at the water parks or whether you will need to hop from park to park, start with the base ticket and then plan on adding when necessary at the parks.
It is important to note that if you do add either of the Park Hopper options, you will be charged based on the total days of your ticket - even if you add on the last day.
PLAN TRAVEL TO ORLANDO
One great way to get a little bit of extra magic out of your adventure is to show up as early as possible on the day you check in. All Disney Resorts allow you to begin using the amenities of your hotel on the day you arrive, however early that might be! If you are staying off-site, check with the hotel specifically to see what their policy is as most have a similar policy to Disney’s.
This means that if you show up to your resort at 9AM, the resort will store your luggage for free while you spend that entire day by the pool, exploring the resort, or by using the extra time in your day to enjoy the parks! With the current reduced park capacity and hours, you can save a night in a hotel and still get the same amount of park time by scheduling your arrival early on your check in day.
If you choose to drive, consider staying off property or even an hour to two away the night before you check in. It's a great way to save a little money on your Disney adventure without sacrificing the experience.
When flying to Disney, plan to arrive at the Orlando International Airport (MCO). This is where all major US and international airlines fly into, while being closest to Disney World. As with driving, we recommend trying to arrive in Orlando as early in the day as possible.
GETTING FROM THE AIRPORT TO A RESORT
Once you arrive, you have several options for making your way to your resort. If you are staying at a Disney Resort, we recommend the free Disney’s Magical Express bus service. A bus picks you up directly from Orlando International Airport (MCO) and drops you off at your resort, all while sitting in comfortable seats and watching a fun video to get you excited for your trip. In order to get this service you will need to register in advance by calling Disney at 407-939-1936 to reserve your seat.
In the past, Disney has provided the option of having your luggage delivered directly from the airport to your room, all without waiting for your luggage at baggage claim. You just have to tag your bags and Disney does the rest. However, this service has been paused due to social distancing requirements. But when it returns, we recommend taking advantage of it.
The only downside to the Magical Express is that you may have to wait up to 30 minutes for your bus to depart. If you are in a rush to make it to your resort, you can always choose a rideshare service. However, this will cost around $30 to $40.
You can always rent a car from the airport, but be sure to note that Disney has recently started charging for overnight parking at Disney Resorts. This will run you between $15 and $25 per night depending on where you are staying. Despite this cost, there are some benefits of having a car. The first being that you do not have to rely on the Disney Transportation System. Due to the current pandemic, Disney is delaying some of their busses to limit capacity at the gates of the park prior to opening. With a car, you can drive to a park, park a car for free as a resort guest, and get into the park on your own schedule. A car will also provide you some added flexibility if you need to make a quick run to Target or the drugstore during your vacation; who hasn’t needed that in past adventures!
If you choose to stay off-site, you will need to choose between a rideshare option or renting a car as none of the major properties provide complimentary airport shuttles. Check with your specific property for their parking rates and park transportation options (most nearby hotels offer shuttles to the park a few times a day). In most cases, it is likely a better logistical choice to rent a car as you can control your schedule a little more freely. However, as you will have to pay for parking at the parks and potentially at the resort each day, choosing a rideshare from the airport and using the complimentary resort transportation, or even an occasional rideshare to the parks, can save you money.
PRIORITIZE DINING & ATTRACTIONS
As you may have realized, Disney World is ginormous! You will not be able to do everything on a single trip; honestly, you probably wouldn’t want to. Choosing the restaurants and rides that you most want to experience early in the process will serve as your guide for creating the best plan for your needs.
We have provided our recommendations on the top rides you should target as well as notes on some that we think you can skip if needed. Take a look at our rankings to determine for yourself which rides you must do and which you’d be ok with skipping.
As far as dining goes, Disney World does offer the normal theme park fare (burgers, fries, hot dogs, ice cream) at several of their quick service locations. However, it also has some very unique, fun restaurants that won’t break the bank. Additionally, there are incredible dining experiences for evenings that you want to remember. These more expensive dining options do require making reservations, which we will outline later in the guide.
To choose which dining options you would like to target, we recommend the restaurant search tool at Disney Food Blog to get started. We also have our favorites that we would be happy to recommend. Just Ask!
We recommend that each person in your traveling party write down the top ten attractions that they must do on the trip, plus their top five restaurants. This is a great way to get everyone excited and to ensure that you can end up doing as many of their top attractions and restaurants as possible.
You will also need to start considering if you want to use the Disney Dining Plan or not. For most people, we suggest skipping it as it just provides more food than most people would normally eat. There are situations where it does make sense, but those are mostly limited to people who would prefer a fixed price for their trip up front or if Disney is running a promotion. Additionally, most Disney Quick Service meal portions are large enough that two adults can comfortably split the meal.
NOTE: Disney is currently not offering the Dining Plan due to social distancing restrictions on restaurant capacity
CREATE A DAILY PLAN
Once you get to this point of your planning you should have your attractions and dining list you created in the section above handy. Using that list you should start to create a day by day plan for your trip. Start your plan by using a crowd calendar to decide the park where you will be starting each day. If you decided to get the park hopper option on your tickets, we recommend selecting a park for the morning and then plan on a different park for each afternoon and evening.
Next, begin to add in your desired dining choices for each day, taking into consideration the parks you plan to visit. For resort dining, make sure to think through your location within Disney World and when you will want to be in the parks themselves. Since Disney World is ginormous, it often takes longer than you would expect to travel between locations. Consider ending your day at Animal Kingdom with dinner at Animal Kingdom Lodge or hopping on the monorail after a day at Magic Kingdom and heading over to Disney’s Contemporary, Polynesian or Grand Floridian Resorts dinner. If you are looking for a big breakfast one day, consider doing it on the day you are planning on going to EPCOT, as the park is currently opening at 11AM most days, leaving plenty of time to grab breakfast and make it over by the time the park opens.
Also, take this time to validate that you are spending the right amount of time in each park. For example, if you really want to have two nice dinners in EPCOT or if you really want to ride Rise of the Resistance in Hollywood Studios twice, you will need to make sure you have two days in each of those parks. Or, if you want to spend more time doing all of the attractions in Magic Kingdom, you will need to make sure that you have additional days there instead.
Finally, use this time to start getting familiar with your touring strategy to make sure you know how you will optimize your time in the park for the day. Think through the attractions you want to experience each day and start to plan in what order you will target riding them. While this will often change once you get in the park, it's good to have a plan early so that you can more easily adapt for rides that break down or there are longer/shorter lines than expected.
BOOK DINING RESERVATIONS
With your Daily Plan in hand, you can now go ahead and make Advance Dining Reservations (ADRs). These reservations are available to anyone, no matter if you are staying off property or at a Disney Resort. Additionally, you don’t even need tickets to dine at Disney Springs or in any of the Disney Resorts. There is no cost for making an ADR, but a credit card is required to book as there is a $10 per person fee for no-shows. However, you can always cancel for no charge up until 24 hours prior.
If you want to be able to get a dining slot that supports your touring strategy to maximize time in the parks (such as an 11:30 lunch or a 6:00 dinner), you will need to book dining as soon as the reservation system opens.
Currently dining reservations become available starting at 7AM EST, 60 days prior to the start of your adventure. On this date, you can make reservations for your entire stay (up to 10 days). Plan to be online 5 minutes before 7am, already logged into the My Disney Experience portal on your computer ready to go.
When making your reservations make sure to reference your Daily Plan that you created in the section above and start with the more popular spots. Generally, signature, buffet and character dining will be the most in demand. We also recommend booking multiple reservations on different days at the restaurants you have your heart most set on. While planning is great, plans do change and having flexibility is important. Just make sure you cancel the ones you don’t need at least 1 day in advance.
GATHER YOUR GEAR
As your adventure approaches, you will need to start gathering everything you need for your trip. We won’t bore you with a full packing list here, you know to bring a pair of worn in shoes, toothbrush, and underwear. . . At least we hope you do!
Instead, here are a few items that we find particularly useful:
A second pair of “worn-in” shoes: Watching all the people walking around in their wet shoes from the pop up thunderstorm the night before while you are in dry soles will make you super grateful. But, make sure that the second pair is just as comfortable as the first. Because, the last thing you want is fresh blisters while walking around Disney World
Moleskin padding: Speaking of blisters, moleskin padding is a lifesaver and we don’t ever travel without it. Whether covering up existing blisters, or placing it on potential problem areas, your feet will thank us
Snacks and a reusable water bottle: In order to save time on breakfast, and money on overpriced snacks and water, we recommend bringing some breakfast and bars along with a refillable water bottle on your trip. Instead of spending time and money at your hotel food court, just grab a bar in the morning and then stick a few in your bag for later. You can use that food court to fill up your water bottle with fresh ice water at the beginning of your day.
Ponchos, rain jackets and flip flops: Remember that you are going to Orlando and passing, quick storms are very likely. Additionally, there are numerous water rides where some sort of water proof covering and shoes can come in very handy. We actually recommend bringing both a poncho and rain jacket. Ponchos are a great lightweight option to bring to the park every day for riding a water ride or in case of a shower, whereas a rain jacket is a better choice if you know it's going to be raining all day and you need a more durable solution. Also, a pair of flip flops can help you avoid having soggy shoes
Comfortable backpack: Just in this list we have mentioned snacks, a water bottle, a poncho and a pair of flip flops to carry with you during your daily adventure. This is why we recommend investing in a sturdy and comfortable backpack for your trip.
You can find all of our specific recommendations on our Amazon list here.
This is the most important part of planning your Disney World Adventure, especially with the uncertainty that the current pandemic brings. Disney is likely to change a lot between when you book and when you actually go. Between now and the end of 2021, we expect Disney to change park hours and procedures, to announce changes in processes to park hopping, advance dining reservations, park pass reservations and to likely bring back FastPass+ or some other line skipping system.
Throughout your planning journey keep an eye on our blog and this page to see what changes will be coming.
Once you are on your trip, your plans will change as well. Weather, broken down rides, or even sickness can all crop up to throw off your plans, this will require you to adjust and adapt. Hold your plans loosely, and be okay with some blips. Additionally, when something goes wrong, don’t avoid going to Guest Services. It's definitely worth a few minutes of your time to stop by if you’ve experienced something unforeseen. The Cast Members (employees) at Disney World are kind, and want you to have a great adventure. If they can help you out, they will do everything they can to assist.
Finally, we know all of this can seem like a lot. Honestly, it is. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed with all the advice we’ve given. But we want you to learn from our experiences, both positive and negative!
You probably still have a lot of questions. If you want some additional help, we are here for you! You can take advantage of a free Embark Session where we can answer your questions, help you with a specific topic, or just walk you through this planning process.
If you want more, we offer a variety of services where we will help you work within your budget to have the most magical trip possible. Additionally, since we do not sell travel ourselves, we won’t recommend add-on’s that you don’t want or need. We will share advice learned from years of research and traveling ourselves, tailored exclusively for you.