This is the first article in our Trip Planning 101 series. We hope you find it and our worksheet helpful. Please give us feedback in the comments section to help us make our tools even better.
The first step in planning a visit to Walt Disney World is deciding when to take your trip. This basic decision can have a big influence on the pace, mood, and cost of your vacation. Here’s a quick guide on how to choose the best timetable for your Walt Disney World experience.
Gather Your Tools
Before you sit down to plan, you’ll need to gather the following items:
- A blank calendar. I like having one where I can see whole year in front of me, such as this one for 2012.
- Your school district calendar (if applicable).
- Work schedules.
- Calendars for your family’s activities: sports, church groups, dance recitals, etc.
- Your personal appointment calendar.
- The TouringPlans.com Crowd Calendar.
- The Walt Disney World attraction closures schedule.
- Access information about Disney’s special events each month. There’s a great section about this in the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World.
- Access to your favorite weather website, such as weather.com.
- Access to your favorite airline website or an agregator app such as Kayak.
- Access to your favorite Disney discounts web site, like MouseSavers.com.
- Several colored pencils or markers.
Brainstorm Planning-Related Information
Before you sit down with the calendar, you’ll need to ask yourself some basic questions.
- Are travel dates limited to school vacation dates? Or are you willing to take the kids out of school for a few days, or more?
- Are there work-related dates that prevent travel? For example, you’re an accountant who can’t travel during tax season.
- Are there family-related commitments that prevent travel? For example, your sister’s wedding is in August so you can’t go to Walt Disney World then.
- Are there religious observances that prevent travel? For example, you need to be home during Easter.
- Are there specific events at Walt Disney World that you’d like to experience? For example, Food & Wine Festival, Flower & Garden Festival, or Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party.
- Does weather play a factor in your vacation enjoyment? For example, you don’t consider it a vacation unless it’s warm enough to swim. Or you’re uncomfortable carrying your toddler when it’s more than 80 degrees out.
- Are there medical reasons not to travel at certain times of year? For example, your allergies flare during the spring. Or you become short of breath at temperatures above 85 degrees.
- Do you have any absolutely 100% must-do attractions? For example, your son is obsessed with Star Wars. His (and thus your) vacation will be ruined if he doesn’t experience the Star Tours attraction.
- Are there other people’s schedules to consider? For example, your dog walker is unavailable in the summer. Or your mother-in-law is traveling with you and must be consulted.
- How important are low crowd levels to you?
- How important is low cost to you?
- Are there any habits of my traveling party to consider? For example, your teenagers refuse to wake up early on vacation, so you’d prefer travel when the parks are open late.
- Are there special celebrations to consider? For example, your daughter has always wanted to be at Walt Disney World on her birthday.
To make it easy, we’ve created a handy VACATION DATE PLANNING WORKSHEET, a downloadable PDF for helping you organize your dates.
Narrow it Down
If the reason that you’re visiting Walt Disney World is for a specific event, perhaps to run in the Walt Disney World Marathon, then selecting your travel dates is going to be easy. But most folks will have some more challenging choices to make. For example, while I personally make three or four annual research trips on my own, my family also likes to take one long trip to WDW each year (a full week), plus a long weekend bonus trip.
Let me walk you through my family’s planning situation for 2012 as an example to show you how you might tackle your task.
Here were my family’s considerations:
- My oldest daughter is enrolled in a challenging high school curriculum. We did occasionally pull the kids out of school for travel when they were younger, but falling behind in high school is not an option. Thus, we will not travel when school is in session. I’ll cross off the dates school is in session in red.
- Our younger daughters attend a sleepaway camp for much of the summer. This is a priority for them. Thus, we will not travel when camp is in session. I’ll cross off the dates camp is in session.
- We can’t travel when I have personal volunteer commitments (several Sundays in the winter), when my daughter has pre-season practice for her debate team (last week of August), or when we have a family commitment on the West Coast (February break). Let’s cross off those dates as well.
Visualize What Your Options Are
As you can see, I’ve pared down our options quite a bit. I then marked the dates when we actually could visit Walt Disney World in yellow.
It’s easy to see that for a week-long WDW trip, our options are April break, mid/late August, and Christmas. Here’s where you need prioritize the vacation characteristics that are most important to you: weather, crowd level, price, attraction closures, availability of activities, and so on.
Let’s look at how these items change during our possible travel weeks.
- Weather. I pull the monthly averages for Orlando on weather.com and see that the average high/lows for early April are about 80/60 (nice!), for mid August are about 92/74 (ouch), and for late December are 73/52 (fine, but possibly chilly if temperatures are lower than normal). For us, this round goes to April.
- Crowd Level. Here I need the TouringPlans Crowd Calendar. The first week of April scores at the 9 and 10 level (extremely crowded). Our mid-August dates show mostly 8 and 9 level crowds the first week (a bit more manageable) and at the 5 to 7 level during the second week (really not too bad). Christmas week predictions for 2012 are not posted yet, but the 2011 numbers show flat out 10s across the board (as crowded as crowded can be). The second week of August wins this round.
- Cost. There are many items that factor into the cost of your vacation, but one of the largest is the price of your hotel. To get a rough gauge on hotel price, I went to the Walt Disney World website and looked for the cost of a night at the deluxe-level Polynesian resort. I chose the Polynesian because we are a family of five, and the deluxe resorts allow five guests in one room. For the date of April 4, 2012, the website shows the rate as $590 per night. For the date of August 22, the rate is $405 per night. For the date of December 26, the rate is $655 per night. While these are not necessarily exactly what your costs would be (particularly in August you might be able to find a better deal through a travel agent or a service like Expedia), they do give you a ballpark expenditure for your trip. August wins on price.
- Attraction closures. We love almost everything at Walt Disney World, but there are a few rides that are must-dos on every trip (I’m talking to you Soarin’). I want to make sure that our favorite rides will be available during our vacation. I give a quick glance at the Attraction Refurbishment Schedule and see no notifications of significant closures during our possible travel dates. This round is a draw.
- Activities. These are the intangibles that can change the feel of your trip. My family will take into consideration that we love the water parks, which are best experienced in warmer weather. Win one for August. I am also enthralled by the holiday decorations at the parks. Nothing puts me in my happy place like the Osborne Lights at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Big points for December, with the caveat that we have seen the lights several times in the past few years. Another point for December is the possibility that some of the new Fantasyland expansion will be open then, and we always love to see what’s new in the parks.
With all the information in front of you and your priorities sorted out, it’s decision time. Some households may go by parental fiat, and others will take a poll and give everyone a vote. We hashed it out in a family conversation and decided December was too pricey this year (and we know will be back to see the Fantasyland additions in 2013), August is too hot for my husband, so we came up with April as our vacation time of choice.
Once you know your time frame, it may pay to tinker with exact travel dates a bit. We travel to Walt Disney World by air. I plugged some different date combinations into Kayak, the airline price finder app, and found that flights from my area to Orlando vary by about 50 dollars a ticket during the week we’re looking at. If we leave New York on March 31 instead of April 1, we’ll save enough on airfare for a signature meal and some rockin’ souvenirs. Before you nail down your exact dates, it may pay to fine tune them with a bit of more in-depth research.
Look for Hidden Opportunities
I mentioned earlier that, in addition to a week-long Disney trip, we also like to take a long-weekend-sized trip to the World each year. Glancing back at the calendar, the possible long weekend options are in January, May, September, October, and November. The September and November choices give us the possibility of a four-day trip instead of a three-day trip, so those are particularly attractive. Of these options, November is Thanksgiving weekend, which is known for peak pricing, whereas September is generally much less expensive. We’ll definitely want to travel then.
The four-day September opportunity presents itself to us because I happen to live in a community with a large Jewish population. School is closed then for the High Holy Days, making it a great getaway time for those not observing Yom Kippur. When hunting for travel dates, look for these hidden opportunities. For example, New Jersey residents can often capitalize on a lengthy teacher conference in November (Jersey Week), Massachusetts residents may have a Patriot’s Day bonus, or Louisiana citizens may get free time around Mardi Gras. Keep an eye out for confluences of stealth time off. It may be possible to cobble together an entire week of vacation while only missing a day or two of school.
In green, are the dates when it works best for our entire family to be together at Walt Disney World next year. Once we laid everything out, it really wasn’t difficult to see what made the most sense for us.
While this process-of-elimination tactic can work for anyone, other guests will have different approaches. For example, my parents, a retired couple, have far fewer constraints on travel dates than I do. Their priority is to not encounter large crowds when they travel. For them, the first stop in their planning would be the Crowd Calendar. They might choose to redline any dates with a crowd level greater than five or six. Similarly, a family with medical issues exacerbated by heat might check the weather and then first redline the months of May through September, consulting their personal schedules from there.
What techniques do you use when planning your travel dates? What type of system works for you? Let us know in the comments below.
Stay tuned for our next article in the Trip Planning 101 series, How to Pick Your Hotel, coming this week!