How to Plan Your Family’s First Disney® Vacation

How to Plan Your Family’s First Disney Vacation

Has a Disney® family vacation been on your bucket list? With four theme parks, two water parks and more than 25 resorts on property, it’s easy to see why Walt Disney World®Resort in Orlando, Florida, is one of the most visited theme parks in the world. It’s also easy to see why organizing a trip there can be overwhelming, especially if it’s your first time.

As a longtime Disney fan who lives just a few miles from Disney World, I’ve been going to the parks several times a week, every week, for years. And as a mom of two, I have experienced Disney World with children ranging in age from babies to teens.

Here, we break down and simplify the process of planning your family’s first Disney vacation, so you and your crew can focus on making magical Disney moments.

Figure Out When to Go

As you think about timing your trip to Disney World, look at dates at least six months out, when the booking window opens for many restaurants in the parks. Although getting a hotel or suite usually is not a problem, restaurants can fill up quickly, especially during popular vacation times.

If you have school-age children, look at the school district calendar and identify the days they have off. The parks are busier when school is out — however, Disney also hosts special activities during these times, which can make the larger crowds worth it. When an animated film is released in theaters, for example, Disney brings the star characters to the parks for appearances and dance parties; during the year-end holiday season, Disney decks out its parks and resorts.

To make your planning easier, you can refer to this chart for recommended months to visit Disney World.

Best Times to Visit Walt Disney World Infographic Adapted with permission from Serena Lyn, LivingbyDisney.com.

 

Pick Where to Stay

There are hundreds of hotels and resorts in and around Disney World. You need to decide whether to stay on-site (in a Disney-owned resort) or off-site (in a hotel outside Disney property).

For your first trip to Disney World, staying at a Disney resort will simplify your planning and give you access to exclusive perks, including:

  • Early booking for rides and restaurants
  • Extended park hours
  • Access to Disney’s resort transportation options, including complimentary airport shuttle service
  • MagicBand, a wristband that functions as your room key, park entry and payment device (MagicBand is a paid option for visitors staying off-site)
  • Option to add a dining plan for prepaid meals

Disney’s resorts are categorized as Value, Moderate and Deluxe, so you can choose the accommodations that best fit your budget. All Disney World resorts have familiar themes, delicious dining and celebrated service — you really can’t go wrong.

Art of Animation Resort Art of Animation Resort, in Disney’s Value category, surrounds guests in the storybook landscapes of “Finding Nemo,” “Cars,” “The Lion King” and “The Little Mermaid.” Photo provided by author Serena Lyn.

 

Book Your Flight and Ground Transportation

From Orlando International Airport, drive about 20 miles southwest to the parks.

While it’s possible to get to and from the airport and resorts using only Disney transportation — shuttles, buses, ferry-boats and monorails — it’s advantageous to have your own means to get around. When you have your own rental car, you have the freedom to get around on your schedule, plus the flexibility to explore the area beyond Disney property. As Disney’s Official Rental Car partner, Alamo has several locations in Orlando, including on Disney property.

Choose Where to Eat

You can always grab a bite to eat at your hotel, and there are concession stands and quick-service locations in the parks. But you don’t want to miss out on table service, which can add to the Disney experience. With so many types of foods and restaurant themes to choose from, there is something for everyone.

For the classic Disney fan: You can line up to meet Disney characters at all of the parks, but if you want more quality time, they’ll approach you right at your table at some restaurants. To meet Mickey Mouse and friends, I love Chef Mickey’s and Garden Grill Restaurant; for Winnie the Pooh and his pals, check out The Crystal Palace.

For the movie buff: Want to feel as if you’re part of a Disney movie? Be Our Guest Restaurant will take you to the enchanted castle from “Beauty and the Beast,” complete with a stunning ballroom, grand chandeliers, Enchanted Rose and Prince Adam’s portrait, while you enjoy delicious French cuisine. Don’t leave without trying the “Grey Stuff,” a chocolate cupcake with cookies-and-cream frosting.

Be Our Guest Restaurant Be Our Guest Restaurant in Disney’s Magic Kingdom theme park features a stunning ballroom for dinner — and the “Grey Stuff” (chocolate cupcake with cookies-and-cream frosting) for dessert. Photos provided by author Serena Lyn.

For the foodie: Disney is a dream for the gourmet, too. My top pick is ‘Ohana, featuring all-you-can-eat grilled skewers and pineapple bread pudding. For the ultimate in Disney fine dining, have a seat at the Chef’s Table at Victoria & Albert’s; this AAA Five Diamond Award winner was named the No. 2 restaurant in the U.S. by TripAdvisor in 2017.

For aspiring royalty: To fit right into a fairy tale, make your reservations at Cinderella’s Royal Table, inside the castle at Magic Kingdom. At breakfast and lunch, you’ll be welcomed by Cinderella herself, who poses for pictures with guests, and then you’ll go upstairs to your table for dining and visits from other princesses. (Dinner does not include character appearances.) Be sure to book your reservations as soon as your dates are confirmed, as the restaurant is small and fills up fast.

Decide What to Do

Because Disney World has so much to see and do, it can be tempting to jam-pack every day of your trip. Part of your planning is prioritizing what you most want to do on your first trip to Disney World — and not trying to do too much.

Start with Disney’s free vacation planning tools, including a highlight video, for some inspiration. (You’ll need to fill out an online form for access.) Once you have some ideas, fine-tune them — check out the Disney Parks YouTube channel and blog to learn more about virtually every aspect of Disney.

Next, have each member of the family create a wish list for the trip. Maybe it’s to meet Mickey Mouse, ride The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, see fireworks in front of Cinderella Castle or take a spin on the iconic Prince Charming Regal Carrousel. Compile all of these must-do’s into one master list.

Tower of Terror Is riding The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park on your must-do list? Photo by author Serena Lyn.

Now, start to organize the must-do’s. I like to go low-tech and write each one on a sticky note with the location, but you can use any method you prefer. Also add a note for each restaurant you want to try, with the park it’s in. Group the notes by location — this will help you decide what to do in which park on which day.

Many of your must-do’s will be rides or attractions that have FastPass+, Disney’s way of reserving a time slot for an attraction so you can skip the longer line. Use FastPass+ on new and popular rides, which usually have longer lines, to save yourself hours of waiting. FastPass+ selections can be made online or through the My Disney Experience mobile app — 60 days in advance for Disney resort guests, 30 days for others — and at kiosks in the parks; just keep in mind there is limited availability.

(Curious about wait times? The My Disney Experience app shows you real-time wait times for rides. As you plan your trip, it’s helpful to know which attractions have the longest waits. Also, the app includes maps of the parks with navigation, a character locator and your trip details, including park tickets, reservations and FastPass+ selections.)

Finally, be sure to plan some downtime in your trip, like an afternoon at the pool. It might be a nice reprieve from all of your seeing and doing in the theme parks, especially if your children are young.

Pack Your Bags

When packing for Disney World, think about whatever is cool, casual and comfortable for long days of walking in the sun.

Orlando is predictably sunny and warm most of the year, but it’s still smart to check the weather. In the winter months, for example, you might need a light jacket. And ponchos and umbrellas are good for when it rains — which happens more frequently than you might think. Of course, don’t forget bathing suits for the water parks and pools.

At the park, you’ll need a bag or backpack that’s sturdy enough to carry everything and comfortable enough to wear all day, even on rides. There are lockers to rent and store your things, but it’s not always convenient to walk back across the park to get them.

Packed bag for Disney With her bag packed, the author is ready for a day at Disney’s Epcot theme park. Photo provided by author Serena Lyn.

You’re allowed to bring your own snacks into the park, which can prevent a potential hunger meltdown and save you money, too. Bring a bottle to refill with water through the day.

Did I mention it’s sunny? Make sure everyone wears a hat and sunscreen (and reapply often).

A portable charger is also handy for keeping the family’s devices powered for days of picture snapping and video taking.

If you need a stroller, you have the option to rent one in the park. But you might find it more convenient to bring one along for navigating the airport and venturing outside the park on a day trip to the beach. Umbrella strollers are not only easier to fly with, they’re also easier to maneuver through crowds and fold up when needed.

Make It Magical

The real magic of Disney is leaving the world behind for a while, enjoying time with the people you love and feeling like a kid again.

So, skip down Main Street. Eat a Mickey ice cream bar. “Ooh” and “aah” over the nightly fireworks. Wear mouse ears. Laugh. These are memories to last a lifetime.

Vacation Stories

About the Author

Serena Lyn is a Disney fan and Orlando blogger living next door to the mouse. Find more of her articles on her website, Living by Disney, or check out her Instagram feed @livingbydisney for pictures, videos, tips and tricks.

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