A First-Timer’s Guide to Planning a Disney World Trip – Part Two

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A few weeks ago, I posted an article aimed at those of you travelers looking to plan your first ever Disney World trip. I covered three very important topics… requirements, when and how long, and tickets. In this second part I am going to go over transportation, accommodations, and the ever important itinerary.


IMG_9616I am pretty sure that almost anyone that looks at a list of possible accommodations in the Orlando area will be totally overwhelmed. There are so many options! Off property, on property, vacation homes, motels, hotels, value resorts, and even cabins! In order to make the big decision of where you are going to rest your head, you want to look at your options in categories and then break it down from there.

First off, if you have no interest in renting a car, either because you are petrified of driving around an unknown area, or because you do not need to go off of Disney property for anything, you probably should look at accommodations available to you right on Disney property. Disney hotels also work well for families looking to camp. When you are looking at on property versus off property, the major differences lie in what discounts and special perks you get from staying right with Disney. Disney offers guests staying right on property benefits like free parking at the Disney theme parks, shuttle service to and from the parks, a “magical” bus shuttle to and from Orlando International Airport, room charging privileges, package pick-up at resorts, and the ability to add-on one of the controversial Disney Dining Plans.

Staying off property usually works well for folks traveling minute, because most of Disney’s steep discounts must be booked months ahead of time. Dining at the Disney theme parks and resorts is really expensive for the most part, so if you are staying off-property you really have the advantage to hit up far less expensive restaurants. Transportation to non-Disney theme parks and other area attractions will probably be easier if you are not surround by the Disney bubble. If off-site accommodations sounds like your thing, I seriously suggest picking up a copy of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World and check out the in-depth reviews of many hotels, motels, and vacation homes that can be found off of Disney property. No, I do not get paid to plug the book. I actually think that the Unofficial Guide excels in this topic, since most other guide books only cover reviews of on-site resorts.

IMG_9674If you have decided to be surrounded by the Disney magic 24/7, you have to choose from one of Disney’s incredible resorts. This is no small task. Trust me. Just think of it this way, you usually get what you pay for. While one size does not fit all in terms of Disney resorts, there are very few guests that end up truly hating the resort that they choose. If your budget is what matters to you most, go with a value resort. That is a no brainer. If you want more than just a place to rest your head and if you are willing to throw extra money into your hotel, examine your choices in the moderate and deluxe categories. Most people worry that once they are willing to pay over $300 a night for a hotel room, they are going to regret it. However, I really believe that you will be happy with whatever resort you choose. None of the deluxe resorts repeatedly get horrific reviews, so you really do not have much to worry about. I suggest you go to YouTube and watch resort tour videos to get a good idea of what each hotel’s vibe is like. Try not to stress about it too much, because no matter what you choose, you are going to be in Disney World and that is the most important part.


You are faced with a few big questions when it comes to transportation in your Disney World trip. The first is, how are you going to get to Disney World? If you are really cool and can teleport, then by all means, do so. However, if you are an average human like the rest of us, you are either going to be flying to Florida or driving.

IMG_8857In most cases, driving is going to be your least expensive option. While gas prices are always on the rise, some people choose to caravan with another family and split the cost of gas and a rental vehicle. Often times, a family can rent a van, plus pay for gas and still come out of trip spending less money on transportation than if they flew to Disney World. This option allows you to have freedom to travel outside of the Disney World Resort to visit other area attractions and restaurants. While some off-site accommodations provide free shuttles to Disney theme parks, not all do. So, you will need to think about renting a car if this applies to you.

Flying is the best way to get your Disney vacation started as soon as possible. There are some serious benefits to flying to Disney World other than just getting the magic started quickly. Once you arrive at the airport, you actually do not need to rent a car or hire a car company to transport you to Disney World. Disney provides a free shuttle service to and from Orlando International Airport for anyone staying on Disney property. Whether you use it or not, you essentially pay for it when you book your hotel room. The downside to using Disney’s Magical Express is that you have to depend entirely on Disney’s internal busses to transport your family around Disney property. If you are in a hurry or think might get impatient waiting for a bus, you could find Disney’s busses frustrating since they are not always the most dependable. It is pretty hard to know if you are going to wait two minutes or twenty minutes for a bus. When it is nearly midnight, you are exhausted, and all you want to do is get back to your hotel room and sleep, waiting for a bus sounds like absolute misery. However, for some people, this small inconvenience is well worth the money you can save from not having to rent a car.

Keep in mind that even if you choose to drive your own vehicle to Disney World, this does not mean you are required to drive your own car to get to the parks and back to your Disney resort (provided you stay on property). If you feel uncomfortable driving around the sometimes confusing Disney World roadways, you can always use the internal bus system.


IMAG0530I was told by a reader of the TouringPlans blog that they find creating an agenda the biggest challenge in planning a Disney World trip. I totally understand this. Even after planning what feels like a million trips, it still is in no way a simple process to figure out my agenda. I will tell you about how I personally plan, and you can decide from there what tips you would like to incorporate for yourself.

First, I lay every bit of information out in front of me. I print out park hours for my vacation dates. I also jot down the recommended “best park” and “worst park” for each day based on the crowd calendar. At this point, I usually have not made any Advanced Dining Reservations yet. I only book those once I know what park I would like to start my day at. If I have the park hopper option, obviously I have a little bit more flexibility when it comes to booking my dining reservations. When going online or calling to make my dining plans, I try to match up the “best park” for an given day to a desired restaurant. Simple enough, right? Wrong. Sometimes I do not always get my way and can only get a restaurant reservation that I want for a day that does not work with the schedule I have laid out in front of me. Here is where your own judgement comes into play. What matters more to you? Sticking to a schedule with the presumed lowest park crowd, or nabbing a coveted Disney dining reservation?

Some of you might be wondering why I only care about documenting where I would like to start each day at. I have come to realize that you cannot always predict how fast or slow you will get done with a park on any given day. You also cannot predict the weather very far out. Sometimes things happen and you want to spend the afternoon finishing up attractions at another park that you might have skipped for whatever reason. Sometimes you discover that you really enjoy a nighttime show and would like to see it again, but you will have to travel back to a park you already visited. That is why I prefer to only note where I would like to start each day. I always pick each of the four major parks as my “primary” park at least once. I like to get the morning experience and nighttime experience of each park, even if that means not doing it on the same day. This is a definite benefit of adding on the park hopper option to your theme park admission ticket.

IMG_9683Once all of my Advanced Dining Reservations are made and I know what parks I will be starting my day at, I type up a helpful piece of paper that I literally take with me everywhere during my trip. The paper lists my travel dates, primary park, any special shows or activities planned, and any dining reservations for the day, along with the confirmation numbers. I put it in a page protector just to keep it relatively crinkle free, even if I have to fold it a bit to fit it into my bag. I carry it with me so I can pull it out in case I ever ask myself, “what park will I be at on Friday?”, or if a restaurant cannot find my reservation.

Everyone plans their trips a little bit differently, but I just wanted to give you a glimpse on how I like to keep my head on through the excitement of Disney trip. I would love to hear about how all of you are organizing your schedules!

Traveling to Disney World for the first time is a big daunting task for a lot of people, but it does not have to be. Everyone seems to have the one thing that trips them up in their planning. In the comments section of my previous post, many of our awesome TouringPlans readers shared what their travel struggle tends to be. Hopefully, my tips and tricks helped you out and answered some of your burning questions! If not, please let me know so I can help!


Stacey Lantz

Born and raised in Southwest Michigan, Stacey believes she lives far too many miles away from Walt Disney World. In her spare time she enjoys singing/dancing, spending time with her nieces, and of course, talking about Walt Disney World to anyone that is willing to listen. She's been blogging about all things Disney since 2008. Follow her on Twitter @Stacey87.

27 thoughts on “A First-Timer’s Guide to Planning a Disney World Trip – Part Two

  • May 21, 2013 at 10:36 am

    If you choose the Magical Express, you do not “have to depend on” using Disney Transport during your stay. Alamo has a car rental station at the Car Care Centre near the Magic Kingdom. One of the benefits is you won’t pay the on-airport surcharge for the rental from that station, though there is a concession fee to WDW. I often take the Magical Express and book a car for a single day if I need to go offsite. A small car is often cheaper than a cab to and from a mall, for instance, and if I need the car on my check-out day, I’ll take a one-way rental and drop it at MCO. Either you or the resort concierge can call Alamo to arrange a shuttle ride to the rental station, while the rental itself can be booked online.
    While the wait for the Disney Transport bus can be an exasperating 20 minutes, my self-talk is that this is part of the slowing down that is supposed to happen on vacation.

    • May 21, 2013 at 9:13 pm

      National Car Rental (and Alamo) can be picked up right at the Dolphin.
      Easy walk from any of the Epcot area resorts (Swan, Boardwalk, Beach Club, Yacht Club) or International Gateway (back entrance to Epcot).

      We’ve rented a one day car there 3 different times to go “off property”, and used Disney Transportation the rest of each trip.

  • May 21, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    It’s always great to see a fellow planner. I think it’s one of my favorite parts of the whole thing (yes, I’m a complete dork). I do almost exactly what you do and start with the crowd calendar, decide where we will be each day, and then make dining reservations based on that. I make reservations 180 days in advance and have never had an issue getting what I want (in September).
    We tend to get a 5 day park hopper, and I usually plan one full day in each park and then one day to get another half day of Epcot and MK. I will make reservations at least 2 times in Epcot around this because it tends to have the better restaurants. I also make sure to have a print out of all my confirmation numbers to take with me and of course I have my touring plans in the notebook as well.

    I have noticed that the Disney site now has a place for you to type in all your daily plans. I’m giving that a try this year.

    • May 21, 2013 at 2:05 pm

      Leslie — we are soul sisters! The planning is almost as fun to me as the vacation. One thing I like to do is make customized touring plans, using the tools available for the yearly fee (on this site.) I LOVE playing around with the plans and letting the computer optimize them for me. It’s always fascinating to me. When everything is all set, I use the notes section to put in my dining reservations numbers. Although I could access (and adjust) these plans in my husband’s smart phone, I’m a little more “old school.” The last time we went, I saved my plans in a small format — like 5 x 7. I printed them up and had them laminated, then punch a hole in the corners and used a little binder ring to attach. They worked great!!!! People kept coming up to me and asking where I got them.

      • May 21, 2013 at 8:13 pm

        Oh I am totally laminating this year!

          • May 22, 2013 at 12:50 am

            I am also a fellow laminator. I buy (hundreds of) record cards and write out my personalized and optimized plan for each day on one of those, including the corresponding dining reservation. I then have hubby carry that days laminated plan in his shorts side pocket and we don’t even bother with a bag.

            I religiously look at the crowd calendar for months ahead of the dining reservation day (12 days to go) & if the prediction for a particular day have been very changeable, I opt for a non-park restaurant. Some of my favourites are in the resorts rather than the parks, so if (for example) I think I’ll be in Magic Kingdom but the crowd predictions have changed from bad to good, I might book California Grill for dinner which doesn’t actually require me to be in a a potentially busy park.

            My rule is if a park is 7/10 or more, stay away.

    • May 23, 2013 at 1:59 pm

      Absolutely use the Disney website for your daily plans and especially to make reservations — so much easier than talking to a friendly cast member on the phone. With the website you can see all available restaurants and times and choose what is best for you. You can also use it for various packages. For example, I signed up for the Fantasmic Dining package by making a lunch reservation in DHS in order to get a VIP ticket for Fantasmic that same night.

      In my case, I know I’m attending during the Epcot Food and Wine Festival but I made reservations in Epcot on multiple nights anyway just in case. I may decide just to graze around World Showcase instead. I know — I need to cancel no later than a day in advance, or incur a fee. But it doesn’t hurt to have the reservations locked in now to guarantee a table.

  • May 21, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    Quick tip: something I’ve done with my itinerary over the last couple of trips is typing it up in a document that is saved on Dropbox. That way, I don’t have to worry about forgetting my sheet in my shorts the night before or it becoming so crinkled by the end of the trip that it is rendered illegible. As long as I have a data connection, I can pull up my ADRS, plans for the upcoming days, etc., and if I need to make a change, I can just type it in rather than having to scribble something out.

    • May 21, 2013 at 5:55 pm

      Dropbox was a saver for me as well… I kept my 15 page spreadsheet on there, and it automatically updated. At night I would input my receipts, and could then toss them, as they were saved both on my laptop, and on the internet, in case something happened.

  • May 21, 2013 at 7:27 pm

    Dare I say, planning my trip is one of my favorite parts of a Disney vacation! Over we determine our dates, we get quotes on a few different resorts (we always stay on property; we prefer to be completely immersed!). Then we set up our tickets and start on the itinerary. I’ve always had a hard time with tickets on arrival days and departure days, so we started using this strategy. We drive down one morning (from NC), arriving late afternoon in Orlando. We don’t use tickets that day, but instead stroll Downtown Disney, shop, and have dinner at one of the great restaurants there. We spend our first night outside the World, closely and inexpensively. We get up the next morning, EARLY, and check in to our resort, leaving our bags in our car. We get our tickets and hit the parks, having a full day to our disposal. We get to our Disney resort that night. Being in a park all day our first full day and then looking forward to exploring our resort at night is so much fun! Our last day, we get up early, check out and take our stuff to our car, then go to the parks for our last full day. We head to another outside the world hotel that night, and drive home the next morning. It takes more days but is a less expensive way to get the most out of your ticket purchases and meal plans.

  • May 21, 2013 at 11:54 pm

    I would also encourage people to look into vacation homes- if you can find a location and quality that suit your needs you can earn a tremendous bargain. However, be very careful about havin house owners who will help you and ensure security- on a trip about 7 years ago a burglar tried to enter our home while one party member was in it, leading to endless police visits and effectively ruining the whole trip without any help from the owner,

  • May 22, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    It’s funny how many of us make our own sheets. I do the same even after adding items to My Disney Experience on the Disney website. I also use crowd calendar and best and worst parks to decide days in advance and then make dining reservations. This year was the first year that I was able to optimize plans on the mobile Touring Plans app, but I loved having all of our itineraries on my smart phone and the ability to update and optimize on the spot if the plans changed midway through the day! Although I will admit, I kept my laminated paper copy in my backpack – just in case, but I never needed it on this trip! Keep up the awesome work, fellow organizers! I now feel less alone in my obsessive planning!

  • May 22, 2013 at 4:09 pm

    Wow! I bow to the organizational goddess that you are! 🙂 This October will be our first family visit and my husband thinks I’m crazy because of all the reading and surfing I am doing. I keep telling him “We don’t want to waste time and money!” Figuring out the Park visits and Dining Reservations has been toughest for me. Where do you go on Day 1? What about character meals? Do we want our table service meals ALL at supper? How do I know what time the reservations should be (when will we be hungry)? Is 1 day really enough for AK and HS? I could go on and on!!

    • May 23, 2013 at 3:44 pm

      All very good questions. I will offer just a few tips I have found. For me and my family we love character meals and do them every chance we can. The kids get to spend more time with the characters than they do at the meet and greet spots, and you don’t have to wait in line for 30 minutes just to get a signature and a quick picture. While we sit and eat the characters come to us. The other tip I can offer is to do some of your table service meals for lunch. The sit down time can be a great break for big people and little people.

      • May 23, 2013 at 4:06 pm

        Thanks Donk! Great suggestions. My kids are 10 & 15 but will still need a little down time… Dad and I will DEFINITELY need a break!

        Here’s a question for everyone. Which Park do you visit first? Should it always depend on crowds or do you choose with your heart? 😉

        • May 23, 2013 at 4:25 pm

          I try to plan out where we are going based on touringplans predictions of crowd level, but my wife and kids wont let us be in DW for more than 1 day without visiting MK and seeing “Wishes”. I can’t for sure say that MK is our favorite park but to us seeing Cindy’s castle with the fireworks exploding overhead is the very essence of Disney World.

  • May 23, 2013 at 9:31 am

    This is so funny! Most people think I am overboard with the sheets I do and print for everyone until we get to Disney. I am a travel agent and I use touring plans to help give suggestions to my clients as well. I use basically the same method, park crowd levels and then dinning. It’s nice to know I am not the only one!! I will be laminating this year, fabulous idea!!

    • May 23, 2013 at 12:52 pm

      It’s amazing how many in my family think it’s overdoing it with all the planning and scheduling, but then are just blown away by how much time we save using the touring plans, optimization features, crowd trackers, etc. It’s pretty easier to make believers out of them when they spend four days at the parks in the middle of summer and never waiting more than 20 minutes for anything! We would wait 10-15 minutes for a ride, then the line would be 40 minutes long when we were exiting; we always seemed to stay one step ahead of the crowd. Yay for planning, itineraries, scheduling, and touringplans.com!

  • May 23, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    I’m going later in the fall during the Epcot Food and Wine Festival and planned my trip based on the parks I wanted to attend. As a Florida Resident, I’m on the Weekday Select Pass so will be visiting the parks M-F. I started with MK which I decided would be on Wednesday, right in the middle of the week. Then filled in the rest: AK on Monday, DHS on Tuesday. On Thursday, MK in the morning, Epcot in the afternoon/evening. And Epcot on Friday.

    Once I knew which parks on which day, I then used the WDW website to make reservations based on that. It even gives you an itinerary, “MyDisneyExperience” where you can input check in/check out (if staying at a Disney resort), what parks you’ll be in, what dining reservations you have, and what entertainment you may try to experience. It’s all right there and I have it all printed out from the WDW website.

  • May 24, 2013 at 8:10 am

    I’m so happy to read all your comments, so I’m not the only one who takes this seriously and plans in details. My family just don’t understand why I’ve passed so many times to schedule everything! We have booked resort, day park and restaurants but they don’t understand why it is so important to plan the order of attractions, why I try several times to plan a particular day if I don’t get satisfaction about attractions. I just regret I didn’t find touring plans sooner because we had planned our days and booked restaurants before knowing about crowd calendars. So we have to days in park to avoid… But with my good touring plans, I think we could get the best of it anyway. But I’ll advise anyone I know who want to go to Disney. It’s the best way to plan efficiently! Thank you all, I feel less lonely and know I’m in the good way!

  • May 26, 2013 at 6:58 pm

    We are actually thinking of having a non-planned Disney vacation this year. Usually I like to plan our days out, but we’re looking forward to actually relaxing on our vacation this year. I love your tip about picking one park for the morning each day. Then we can kind of go with the flow, while still being able to take advantage of the best parks for each day. Make sure you give yourself some down time to enjoy your resort. The last time we stayed at the Polynesian, and the morning of check out I sat out on our balcony for about 15 minutes. At that point I wished that I had done that all week!

  • May 30, 2013 at 9:13 pm

    Why visitors still use to read news papers when in this
    technological globe everything is available on net?

  • June 4, 2013 at 10:24 pm

    I would reiterate what a valuable tool the Unofficial Guide is for off property info. We went with a group of 14 and stayed in 2 houses in Windsor Hills. I decided on Windsor Hills based on the map in the UG which shows where each vacation home community is located. It was the closest one so that settled it for me. I don’t know how I would have traversed the vacation home rental websites had I not had this map and the advice on home renting that is provided in Unofficial Guide. I highly recommend it.

  • June 11, 2013 at 8:38 pm

    How I have loved reading the comments…and so happy I am not alone. I am a planner…for all my vacations. I think it is the fact I have a BS in Industrial Engineering…so I have been educated to plan! I spent several years as an event planner and several as a manufacturing engineer…I plan for everything. I do itineraries, plan meals and events for every trip. My mom (who I travel with a lot) used to make fun of my OCD planning…now she is so used to my detailed itineraries if she travels with others she is lost without them. Other friends are now asking for help planning vacations now. One great idea you have all given me is laminating my itineraries…I have a laminator…going to laminate small copies all my itineraries going forward! I am planning three trips now – Dec ’13 with me (30s female) and my mom (50s female), a solo May ’14 trip to see the garden show and an Oct ’14 Disney trip with 6 people including my friends 8/13 year old daughters – I will also include a cell phone/contact card for each person for the October ’14 trip. I could not tell you anyone’s numbers – I have them programmed in my phone and if we have a phone casualty – I want everyone to have a back-up. I agree with everyone – what park on what day and dinning is the hardest. I always stay off resort since I own a Wyndham time share – it make the most financial sense – they have shuttles to all four parks every 30 min or so on a schedule (Wyndham Bonnet Creek is located on property – not Disney owned and you can rent a nice 2 BR condo pretty reasonable – worth looking into). One reason to stay on resort – 180 days from your check in day you can book up to 10 days of your vacation (So up to a 10 day head start) vs. I had to book 180 days out for each day. The later in the week I got the worse my options/times got because of this. Getting up at 5 AM central time to try and get times each morning got old real fast. I could not get a time better then 9:15 PM for ‘Ohana and could not get a time 9 AM or earlier for Crystal Palace – at 180 days out at 5 AM the 1st week of December which is quiet.

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  • September 22, 2013 at 11:09 am

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