Planning a trip to Walt Disney World? I've been visiting Disney parks for 30 years and this is how I plan stress-free visits

·9 min read
From which hotel to book to how to snag last-minute dining reservations, these are the things Walt Disney World pros know about booking the most successful (and stress-free) visit to the most magical place on Earth. (Photo: Yahoo Life/Getty Images; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
From which hotel to book to how to snag last-minute dining reservations, these are the things Walt Disney World pros know about booking the most successful (and stress-free) visit to the most magical place on Earth. (Photo: Yahoo Life/Getty Images; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

"I'm going to Disney World!" It's a phrase enthusiastically proclaimed by Super Bowl champs and the estimated 58 million people that plan a trip to the Central Florida theme parks each year. Mickey and Minnie await, but unfortunately, a Walt Disney World (WDW) vacation isn't a trip you can show up for expecting to be dazzled by magic ... without preparation.

So what do you do once you've bibbidi-bobbidi-booked your vacation?

From navigating dining reservations to figuring out how to get from place-to-place, it seems park goers should earn a degree in mouse studies to make the most of their trip. Pixie dust can only take you so far, so how can someone new to WDW make sure they're prepared to visit the most magical place on Earth?

As a frequent visitor to WDW since the ’80s, I've clocked hundreds of visits. From the moment you begin planning the vacation package of your dreams until you arrive at Cinderella Castle — mouse ears in tow —here's what Disney newbies need to know about booking a trip.

Which Disney hotel should I book?

WDW resorts extend the magic to your hotel stay through highly-themed properties: from the Pacific Northwest outdoorsy vibe of Disney's Wilderness Lodge to the island feel at Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort.

Disney-operated resorts are broken into three categories: value, moderate and deluxe. Each provides complimentary transportation to the theme parks, water parks and Disney Springs. And, guests with hotel reservations at Disney resorts receive early theme park entry, allowing 30 extra minutes inside the gates before the masses arrive.

Value properties are the most budget-friendly but have less on-site amenities than their higher-tiered counterparts. While, all value properties have standard amenities like outdoor pools and fast cafeteria-style dining options, higher-tier resorts offer perks like table service restaurants and themed lobby bars. Some resorts, like Disney's BoardWalk Inn and Disney's Contemporary Resort, also come with the added bonus of well-lit walking paths to some theme parks, a true game-changer when trying to save time by skipping WDW transportation.

What are the perks to staying on Walt Disney World property?

There are hundreds of hotel options in the area, but staying at an official WDW resort comes with several benefits that may add value. Staying off-property could save money in the short term, but any potential savings may be negated by factors like having to provide your own transportation and cover parking fees.

Conveniences of staying on property include ease of complimentary transportation, bonus park time and the ability to put charges on the room by linking a credit card to your Magic Band, the wearable data device WDW recommends guests wear and use as everything from a room key to a park ticket.

How do I book park reservations?

Want to have the best Walt Disney World experience possible? It's important to know whether you're more of a park-hopping guest or you prefer to spend some time each day relaxing. (Photo: Walt Disney World Resort)
Want to have the best Walt Disney World experience possible? It's important to know whether you're more of a park-hopping guest or you prefer to spend some time each day relaxing. (Photo: Walt Disney World Resort)

Booking park reservations is one of the most important steps you should take when planning a Disney vacation. WDW operates on a park reservation system, meaning purchasing a ticket does not guarantee park admission. Instead, all guests ages 3 and older need a park reservation each day of their vacation. Park reservations to Disney's Magic Kingdom Park, Disney's Hollywood Studios, Disney's Animal Kingdom Theme Park and Epcot can be made once park tickets have been purchased and are limited to availability. During peak times, like holidays and spring break, it's not uncommon for park reservations to book up entirely, so planning ahead is key.

Should I get tickets that include park-hopping?

Park-hopping is Disney speak for visiting at least two WDW theme parks on the same day. Currently, WDW guests are unable to park hop until 2:00 p.m.

Park hopper tickets are an additional cost, something that should be taken into consideration. If you're interested in a more leisurely vacation that includes an afternoon break at the pool and dining reservations in the evening, spending extra money on park-hopping may not be necessary. If you're looking to pack in as much Disney fun as you can, however, you may find value in the added cost.

How do I make dining reservations?

Advanced dining reservations can be made up to 60 days in advance online, in the WDW mobile app (My Disney Experience) and through a reservation hotline. The ability to make reservations opens around 5:45 a.m. both online and in the mobile app, while phone lines open at 7:00 a.m. Once made, dining reservations can be modified in the My Disney Experience app and online up to several hours before your reservation. Disney operates with a strict cancellation policy, however, and no-shows or day-of cancellations incur a $10 fee per person.

Additionally, if your dining reservation is inside a park, you must have a valid park reservation for the date of dining.

What if I can't get the reservation I want most?

Certain dining experiences, including Be Our Guest Restaurant and Cinderella's Royal Table, popular princess-themed dining experiences inside Magic Kingdom Park, tend to book up far in advance. Because more reservations may become available as your preferred date approaches, it's recommended to check the My Disney Experience app daily for new table slots that may open. In some cases, dining will become available the day prior as parties change their schedules in an attempt to avoid a cancellation fee.

Before heading to the most magical place on Earth, it's worthwhile to research which attractions you can reserve with Genie+ and which require an additional fee for a Lightning Lane reservation. (Photo: Walt Disney World Resort)
Before heading to the most magical place on Earth, it's worthwhile to research which attractions you can reserve with Genie+ and which require an additional fee for a Lightning Lane reservation. (Photo: Walt Disney World Resort)

A Disney dining pro tip? Take advantage of services like Mouse Dining and TouringPlans.com that are not affiliated with Disney but assist in securing hard-to-get dining reservations. Simply enter your preferred restaurant, party size, date and time, and these third-party services will run routine scans of the WDW reservation system in an attempt to find an open slot.

Can I get a last-minute dining reservation?

The My Disney Experience app recently introduced a walk-up feature that allows guests to see last-minute tables available at restaurants near their location, including inside theme parks and resorts. Through the app, guests can join a virtual waitlist and when a table is available, a notification will appear.

Prefer not to follow a set dining schedule? Many Disney bars and lounges offer sit-down dining without a reservation. Mobile ordering is available for most quick service dining locations and allows guests to pre-arrange the time they would like to eat, based on availability. Popular quick service locations, like Woody's Lunch Box in Toy Story Land at Disney's Hollywood Studios, are known to book up early in the day.

Of note, Disney Dining Plans, popular pre-paid meal plans often utilized by WDW vacationers, are currently unavailable.

What are Genie, Genie+ and Lightning Lanes?

Disney Genie is the latest in technology from Disney Parks that acts as a personal vacation concierge right on your mobile device. Genie, the complimentary part of this service, creates personalized daily itineraries based on your preferences. It also displays forecasted attraction wait times throughout the day, predicting the best time to visit. The Genie feature also shows which dining locations have immediate availability and is frequently updated throughout the day.

Disney Genie+ is available for an extra charge and acts similar to the now defunct FastPass service. This operates on a day of basis unlike the old system, adding some flexibility to your vacation. Attraction time windows are booked one at a time or every two hours and allow for expedited entrance via special lines called "Lightning Lanes." Your first attraction can be booked at 7 a.m. on your day of use. The cost is $15 per person, per day and you do not need to book the for the entire length of your vacation if you prefer to only use the service in certain WDW parks.

Disney Genie+ can be purchased at midnight on the day of your park visit or as an advance add-on when pre-purchasing tickets.

Hoping to visit more than one park in one day? You'll need a park hopper ticket, which allows each person in your party to visit a new WDW theme park starting at 2 p.m. each day. (Photo: Walt Disney World Resort)
Hoping to visit more than one park in one day? You'll need a park hopper ticket, which allows each person in your party to visit a new WDW theme park starting at 2 p.m. each day. (Photo: Walt Disney World Resort)

High demand attractions, like Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Magic Kingdom Park and Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance at Disney's Hollywood Studios, are not included in the Disney Genie+ service. Instead, these experiences must be booked for individual access through a separate Lightning Lane fee. Prices are a la carte and based on your date of visit and demand, with a max of two individual Lightning Lane purchases allowed per guest, per day. Priority is given to Walt Disney World resort guests who have access to this service at 7 a.m. while all other guests can begin booking once their desired park opens.

How do I get from the airport to my hotel?

WDW has suspended their popular Magical Express service meaning guests are now tasked with getting from the airport to their resort on their own. Traditional options, like taxis and ride shares are available. If renting a car, parking is available at all resorts for a fee.

Third party transportation services like Mears Connect and The Sunshine Flyer also offer shared shuttle service to Disney resorts from MCO (Orlando International Airport) and can be pre-booked.

What transportation can I expect to use at Walt Disney World?

WDW resorts guests are provided with complimentary transportation to the theme parks, water parks and Disney Springs. If dining at another resort, resort-to-resort transportation is in most cases not provided, so you'll want to look into rideshares like Lyft or Minnie Vans, WDW's private rideshare service that recently made a reappearance on property after being suspended during the pandemic.

In addition to bus transportation, some resorts offer monorail service, water transportation and the newest form of disney transportation, the Disney Skyliner an aerial gondola system. Transportation begins 45 minutes prior to theme park opening times and runs up to one hour after park closing times. Bus service to Disney Springs typically runs until 11 p.m.

Headed to Disney Springs? Theme parks currently do not provide transportation to Disney Springs — WDW's shopping, entertainment and dining complex — so you will need to take transportation to a resort then transfer to a Disney Springs-bound bus from there.

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