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Disney World Planning Challenges: Is Packing Carry-On Only Right for You?

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Don’t let packing get you down: a good plan to pack carry-on only can lessen the stress

Establishing a countdown, deciding which parks to visit on which days, planning advanced dining and FastPass+ reservations—for me, all of these are part of the joy of anticipating a Walt Disney World vacation. Even so, there is one aspect of planning that can feel like a major obstacle between me and vacation, one thing that is no fun whatsoever when I’m preparing for a Disney World vacation, and that thing is packing for our flight to the World.

Although I know that packing will probably always be my least favorite part of getting ready for vacation, over multiple trips to Disney World, I have found some ways to make it a little less painful. One of these strategies is to pack carry-on only whenever possible. Packing carry-on only not only cuts down on the amount of “brain drain” I seem to experience while packing but also on the amount of time I spend doing it.

Some Factors to Consider

Your Traveling Party. A major factor to consider affecting your ability to pack carry-on is your traveling party. Packing carry-on only became much more possible when my kids were past the baby and toddler stage. Let’s face it, just getting to Disney World with the paraphernalia needed for young kids is a major accomplishment. But now that our traveling party consists of either adults and older children or adults only, we put everyone to work while traveling carry-on, with each person responsible for a roll aboard bag and a personal item (generally a backpack).

Length of Your Trip. A shorter trip naturally means less to bring, making packing carry-on only an easier task. But if you’re taking a longer trip and are willing to do laundry, it’s still possible to pack carry-on. Although doing laundry is no one’s idea of fun on vacation, there are ways to work laundry around your vacation. All Disney resorts have laundry facilities, often located near the resort pool. One option is to do laundry while you take an afternoon pool break. If you’re staying at one of the deluxe villa resorts, all rooms (with the exception of studios) have a washer and dryer. There are also dry cleaning and valet laundry services available through housekeeping at all Disney World resorts.

Season. Most of the year, we are packing mainly shorts and short sleeve shirts for Disney World, with a sweatshirt in case of a chilly evening. If you are traveling to the World during the colder months, you will probably need to include a pair or two of pants, at least for night time. If you wear pants on the plane, that’s one pair that doesn’t need to be packed. I find packing capri pants to be a good compromise because they can often take me from day to night during the cooler parts of the year. Packable jackets are another option that take up a relatively small amount of room in a bag. Knit or thin fleece gloves and hats can be stuffed into the corner of a bag.

Efficient Carry-On Packing

Yacht Club map laundry
Laundry can be done during an afternoon resort break at laundry facilities nearby many resort pools

A Packing List. Don’t reinvent the wheel! I find maintaining a specific packing list for carry-on to Disney World makes packing much more efficient and saves a ton of time. If you don’t already have a packing list, you can start with this one, customizing it for carry on. Even if you are working from an established list, be sure to update it once you are finally packed. I also usually adjust my packing list when we get home based on what items we used, didn’t use, or needed to buy or go without during our vacation. With every trip, my list gets more efficient.

Organizing Your Roll Aboard. Use pockets for non-liquid toiletries and small items such as ponchos, power cords, and zip-top bags. Tuck shoes at the bottom of the bag. Remember to wear your bulkiest walking shoes on the plane. I limit packed shoes to one additional walk-around pair and a pair that can double as in-room shoes/pool shoes. Rolling clothing in the main compartment can save space. I have also found that using packing cubes keeps things organized, allows me to compress clothes without too much wrinkling, and makes unpacking into drawers fast because I keep all but the most wrinkle-prone clothes in the cubes.

Toiletries. In order to fly carry-on only, it’s necessary to adhere to the TSA’s 3-1-1 liquids rule of packing all your liquids in bottles no larger than 3.4 oz. in a quart-size zip-top bag. It’s a good idea to place this bag in an outside pocket of your luggage for easy access when going through airport security. I usually skip bringing shampoo and conditioner because we can use the ones provided by the resort. I also keep in mind that being at Disney World is hardly akin to being stranded on a desert (or even Magic Kingdom’s Tom Sawyer) island, so there is always the option of purchasing a few items that make sense to buy in bigger bottles, like spray sun lotion and shaving cream, when we get there.

Maximize Your Personal Item. As mentioned earlier, everyone in my party is responsible for a roll aboard and a personal item. We have found backpacks to be particularly efficient. In addition to the usual electronic devices, headphones, books, and snacks, it works great for kids to carry their own autograph books, pins, and Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom game cards. We also are sure to leave some room in our backpacks for bringing home souvenirs.

Prepare a Park Bag. Pre-packing a small park bag and fitting it inside your roll aboard or backpack makes it easy to head to the parks as quickly as possible on arrival day. If you’re not already wearing your Magic Bands, packing them in the park bag will ensure you won’t head to the parks without them. I transfer my wallet, cell phone, and just a few liquids items such as contact lens drops and hand sanitizer from my quart-size bag to my park bag and I’m ready to go to the parks.

Other Benefits of Carry-On Only

Baggage Fees/Baggage Claim. The most obvious benefit of packing carry-on only is not having to pay baggage fees. Plus, we save time by skipping baggage claim, which can be a benefit on both ends of a trip. When we arrive in Orlando and are excited to get our vacation started, there’s no boring wait at the baggage carousel. When we return, we can get our tired selves home as soon as possible.

Magical Express by Sarah Graffam
Packing carry-on can allow for a quick transition from the airport to being settled in your room

Arriving at the World. To get from the airport to the World, we generally use either Disney’s Magical Express service or rent a car. Although a great feature of Magical Express is that Disney will transport your luggage directly from the airplane to your room, a benefit of carry-on bags is that we avoid waiting for our bags at our resort, which is particularly nice when we arrive at our resort and our room is ready. Even if we arrive before check-in time, we have had a lot of luck requesting early check-in ahead of time, allowing us to take a few minutes to deliver our bags to our room and settle in before heading to the parks.

The same benefits apply for the times we rent a car at the airport; after our group navigates to the car rental area with luggage in tow, we work together to load the bags and then everyone pitches in unloading them at the resort.

Unpacking. A final benefit of packing carry-on is that there is less to unpack and less laundry to do when we reach home.

If, like me, you love trips to Disney World but would like packing to play as small a part in your vacation as possible, packing carry-on only may be for you.

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Sarah Graffam

Sarah gets that giddy feeling when walking down Main Street, U.S.A. (and sometimes in her own living room just thinking about her next trip to Disney World). She is a Disney Vacation Club member and has been a professional writer and editor since 1990. Other favorite places she has traveled include Hong Kong, the Czech Republic, England, the Caribbean, Hawaii, Alaska, Kenya, Tanzania, and Disneyland.

5 thoughts on “Disney World Planning Challenges: Is Packing Carry-On Only Right for You?

  • I have to disagree about one pair of walking shoes. You need at least two, and to rotate them every other day.

    I wish I could do carry on only. But the toiletry issue alone prevents that. My skin conditions do not allow me to use whatever is available on site.

    What are people’s experience with trying to do laundry in the middle of the day? I did ours on a Sunday at about 6am. I was first one there, but it quickly filled up. Does midday tend to work best?

  • It’s not just for the plane … we often drive, both to WDW and elsewhere. Over the years (yes, as kids got older) we started packing lighter and lighter and lighter clothing-wise. Now, even though we may not pack light overall for the trip with bringing along food, games, etc. depending where we’re going, usually each of us brings only enough clothes to fit in a backpack. It makes a huge difference when stopping overnight — everyone just grabs their pack, and the big mass of stuff only needs to be managed once going and once returning.

    We usually do laundry locally, but also we make a point of hanging stuff to air so that it can be worn twice before needing a washer (obviously this does not apply to undies). And travel-sized Febreze is one of the great inventions of modern man! 🙂

  • I am also a huge advocate of never checking a bag. I have traveled for 4 weeks on one rolling suitcase and one personal item bag. The key things are:

    – Never pack more than 7-10 outfits (including the outfit you wear on the plane). If you are traveling for longer, you will wear the outfits again.

    – Do not overpack shoes. One pair of super comfy walking shoes is all you need. Shoes take up a ton of room in your suitcase and are not necessary. Wearing your single pair of shoes on the plane leaves a lot of extra room in your suitcase. Exception: if you are going to be spending a lot of time at a beach/waterpark, pack some water sandals.

    – Plan to do laundry every 7 days. If you are someplace where you have to pay for laundry (i.e. no self-service laundromat) then budget to pay for washing everyone’s socks and underwear with a service.

    Most people look at my like I am crazy when I say that I never check a bag, but those people also pack outfits they never wear and have shoes they only wear once or twice. It’s a tradeoff, but one I am happily willing to pay!

  • When I vacation with the family I fly JetBlue since they still fly the first bag free. We always use Magical Express, so it’s not like we have to pick up our luggage at MCO.

    When I do solo trips it’s usually just 3-4 day visits and I pack everything into a soft-sided carry-on that fits under the seat. I have no desire to be one of those people fighting for a spot in the overhead bins just to save a couple bucks on a plane ticket.


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