How to Plan an Amazing Disney Vacation: The 10 Easy Steps
Updated: Apr 10, 2020
Planning a Disney vacation, whether you are going to Disneyland or Disney World, is extremely exciting. But it can also be daunting and overwhelming.
The first trip I ever planned as an adult with my family was a magical time for sure, but I think back to some of the choices I made or things I missed and cringe.
Are you planning your first Disney vacation and feeling a little lost? Or perhaps you went as a child but are now thinking about taking your kids and aren’t even sure where to start?
Well keep reading my friends, because I am about to break Disney vacation planning down to the very basics. Follow these 10 easy and basic steps to planning your Disney vacation and you’ll have the perfect trip foundation.
Step 1: Pick Your Dates
An obvious step one, but there is more to this than you might think.
Are you limited to when you can go based on work, school, or family obligations? Then the decision is an easy one. Just go when you can go and stay as long as you can stay.
But if you have more flexibility you might be wondering when the best time is to go. Do you care about crowd levels? Weather? Extra festivals and celebrations? Pick your priorities and go from there.
If crowd levels are what you care about, generally they are lowest during the week and when school is in session. Obviously avoid Spring Break, Christmas Break, and Summer Break. Many schools have a Fall Break as well and the crowd levels at the park show it.
January -- after the holidays are over -- through February, avoiding the major three-day holiday weekends, tend to have the lowest crowds. But even that could change based on the promotions Disney decides to run. I’ve been to Disneyland with ghost level crowds in February one year, and the next that same month was a lot more crowded than I expected. We had a blast both times, but it goes to show you it is not easy to predict the crowd levels anymore.
Step 2: Pick Your Hotel
Where do you want to stay? On property? Good Neighbor?
I am a big fan of staying on property at both Disney World and Disneyland. (Read more about staying on property at Disneyland here, and Disney World here.)
Disney World’s on property hotels are numerous and still require a bit of research to find the right one for you. Disneyland only has three on property hotels, but tons of great Good Neighbor hotel options. So how do you find the right hotel for you when the list of options is so vast?
Think about what the most important things to you and your family are when it comes to your hotel. Location? Amenities? Do you want separate rooms? A kitchen? What about the hotel pool? And of course, budget. Make a list of priorities and use it to pare down the list of options.
I will admit that this is the most overwhelming part of the planning process simply based on the sheer number of options. This is where I can really help you as part of my free vacation planning services. I am familiar with all the different hotels and can help narrow it down for you based on your priorities and budget.
Getting your hotel priority wish list is my number 1 goal during our initial vacation planning conversations. Armed with that list I go out and find a few different options that meet most if not all your criteria, along with specific price quotes for each. Then instead of picking from hundreds of options, you just pick from three. So much less stressful!
Click here to schedule a free Magical Vacation Discovery call if you’d like more information about planning a Disney vacation. I use an online scheduler to make it easy to find time that works for both of us.
Step 3: Choose Your Ticket Type
Now that your fabulous hotel is chosen, it’s time to choose your ticket type.
First is the obvious decision of how many days. For Disneyland you can choose between 1-5 park days. For Disney World it is between 1-10 park days. If you want more than that you might as well be purchasing an annual pass.
How many days do I recommend? For Disneyland I recommend no less than 3 days. That’s how many days it takes to really see both parks and do most of what you want to do. My family usually goes for a full 5 days though, because it gives us plenty of time to see everything we want and have built in rest time. Because trust me, you will want to rest.
For Disney World I recommend no less than 4 days. That will give you the opportunity to visit all 4 parks at least once. But obviously the more days you can do the better chances you’ll have to see and do more of what you want.
Now that you know how many days you are going, you need to decide if you want to get Park Hopper tickets, meaning you can visit more than one park each day you have a ticket for. Or you can get base tickets which gets you in to just one park per day.
Do I recommend park hoppers? Not always. It depends on your family, priorities, budget, and situation. Again, this is something I go over with people in their Magical Vacation Discovery calls and we can decide together if it makes sense to purchase park hopper tickets.
For Disney World you can take it a step further and purchase Park Hopper Plus tickets. This gets you into more than one park a day AND gets you admission to the two water parks, Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. You can purchase separate admission to the water parks as well.
Step 4: Pick Out Any Extras
The extras I am referring to in this section varies based on the park you are planning to visit.
At Disneyland you can include MaxPass as part of your ticket. MaxPass is an add on you purchase that allows you to make FastPass selections on your phone in the Disneyland app when you are in the parks. It also gives you unlimited Photopass downloads for that day. MaxPass is an additional $15 per person, per park day and I’m a big fan of it.
Click here to read my full blog post on MaxPass, why it’s amazing, and how you can get the most out it.
For Disney World the add on is Memory Maker. Memory Maker gets you unlimited downloads of the pictures taken by a PhotoPass photographer your entire visit. Not just one picture, but all of them including attraction photos and videos, interactions with characters, and more.
If you purchase Memory Maker in advance you save $30, making it $169 instead of $199. I am a huge fan of Memory Maker. The pictures and videos you get from it will become your most treasured souvenirs from your trip.
Click here to read my full blog post on Memory Maker and how you can make the most of this purchase.
Step 5: Choose your Meal Plan
Disneyland does not offer meal plans. If that’s your destination skip this step and go right to step 6.
But if you are going to Disney World this is something you want to consider. It essentially makes your Disney World vacation an all-inclusive because you can include most, if not all your food and drink costs into the price of your vacation up front. Then when you get there you can eat and drink to your heart’s content and not worry about the bill.
Disney World offers three different meal plans that you can choose from: the Quick Service Dining Plan, Disney Dining Plan, and Deluxe Dining Plan.
The Quick Service dining plan gives you 2 quick service meals, also known as counter service meals, and two snacks per person, per night of your hotel stay. The Disney Dining Plan gives you one quick service meal, one table service meal, and two snacks per person, per night of your hotel stay. The Deluxe Dining Plan gives you three meals and two snacks per person, per night of your hotel stay. All three plans include a refillable drink mug, which is eligible for refills at the self-service beverage islands at the quick service locations at any Disney Resort hotel.
The dining plans at Disney World are a hot topic of conversation. Some think they are a waste of money and completely unnecessary. Others love them and wouldn’t travel to Disney World without them.
Are they right for your family? That depends on your budget, family food tastes, and circumstances. This is also something we discuss in the Magical Vacation Discovery calls to see if the dining plans make sense for your individual needs. The answer will be different for everyone.
If you want a nice break and a meal during your day, and especially if you would like to hit any of the character dining restaurant options, the dining plans are something to consider.
Step 6: Figure out how you are going to get there
Will you be driving? Flying? If you are flying, how will you get to and from the airport?
If you are flying to Disney World and staying on property, getting to and from the hotel is easy and free. You can use the Magical Express to get you from the Orlando airport to any of the Disney Resorts. This is something you do need to reserve. I take care of this for my clients, so they don’t have to worry about it.
If you are flying to Disneyland, there is the Disneyland Express bus you can take from LAX or SNA for a small fee. It will take you directly to your hotel if you are staying at a Disneyland Resort, or to a stop nearby if you are staying at a Good Neighbor hotel.
For either park ride shares like Uber and Lyft, rental cars, plus other shuttles are also available. Just remember that unless you are taking a bus, car seats are required for young children. Some rental agencies and shuttles have them available to rent, however most of the time you will be required to provide and install you own. Do your homework and check into this before you leave. You don’t want to be stranded at the airport with a small child and no easy way to get them where you need to be!
If you are driving or renting a car at either Disneyland or Disney World, be aware of any parking fees at your hotel, plus the parks themselves so you can factor that into your trip budget.
Step 7: Make Restaurant Reservations
Now that you have your vacation package booked and transportation sorted, it’s time to start thinking about the vacation itself. Specifically, where are you going to eat?
If you are going to Disney World, you can start making your dining reservations 180 days in advance. And bonus, if you are staying at one of the Disney World resorts you can make your dining reservations for your entire length of stay at once!
If you are going to Disneyland, you can make your dining reservations 60 days in advance. Unlike at Disney World though, you must do them each day at a time no matter where you are staying. Fingers crossed they change this for Disneyland Resort guests someday!
For both parks, this also marks the time you can make some of those extra reservations, such as makeovers at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, droid building at the Droid Depot, and custom lightsaber building at Savi’s Workshop.
With hundreds of restaurants to choose from, this can get overwhelming. Throw in the dining plan for Disney World and it can get downright daunting! How do you know which restaurant is worth using a dining credit for? How do you know if the restaurant is even any good?
This is one of the areas I can simplify for people with my vacation planning services, and one of my favorite parts of the planning process. Based on our conversations I will put together a personalized itinerary for you that includes dining recommendations and other items.
I can give you advice on the best way to use your dining credits on the dining plan and help you track your planned credit usage.
I also have a few favorite tricks that will help you maximize your time at either Disneyland or Disney World while also enjoying a fantastic meal.
Together we will finalize this plan and outline all the restaurants and other things you need to make advanced reservations for. Then you are either armed with a specific list, including dates and times, to make your own reservations if you choose, or I can make them for you.
Step 8: Make FastPass Reservations
Disneyland goers, this is another step you can completely skip because Disneyland does not offer the ability to make advanced FastPass reservations.
But if you are going to Disney World this is another planning item to keep track of on your calendar. If you are staying at a Disney World Resort, you can make your FastPass reservations 60 days in advance of check in, and you can do it for your entire length of stay that you have a valid park ticket for.
If you are staying off property you can make them 30 days in advance and must do them one day at a time.
This step takes a bit of time and research in advance, which I outline in detail in this blog post.
Step 9: Make Your Final Payment
Don’t forget to make your final payment for your trip! When booking direct through Disney, or through myself, you don’t have to make your final payment until 30 days before check-in. Any changes or cancellations made before 30 days can also be done without any fee or penalty.
I always make sure to warn my clients well in advance of when their final payment due date is approaching, so they don’t forget or are caught off guard by a large payment. I can also facilitate payments between the initial booking date and final payment to make things easier if you wish.
Step 10: Go on a Magical Vacation!
All the pieces are in place, final payment was made, you are packed, and ready to go. Time to go and make magical memories together as a family!
There you have it, the 10 basic steps to planning a Disney vacation. If I can help make the process easier for you, I would love the opportunity to do so. Click here to schedule a free Magical Vacation Discovery call to get started.
Like I said before, my planning services are completely free for people who book their vacation packages through me. I work hard to make things easy and as seamless as possible for people, stay up to date on all the changes that Disney is constantly making, and genuinely care about my client’s overall experience.
I love my job and I hope it shows in the quality of my work.
I am a travel agent with Magical Vacation Planner and can help you plan an unforgettable vacation with your family. Click here to schedule a Magical Vacation Discovery Call to learn more and get your free, no-obligation quote.
Or head here to download your copy of my free Disney Vacation planning worksheets, or here for a free Disney Stroller Checklist.